Hite, on the hot seat, says district is working on a PFT contract

Superintendent William Hite gestures as he sits next to school district CFO Uri Monson during a Philadelphia School District hearing in City Hall Council Chambers on Wednesday.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. was on the hot seat Wednesday, fielding City Council's questions on topics ranging from charter school costs to the teachers union's deal in a hearing on the School District's budget.

Hite said the district was in "very active" negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers this week. Teachers have gone without a contract for four years and without a raise for five.

Councilwoman Helen Gym, a frequent district critic, urged the superintendent to get a deal done.

According to a PFT survey released this week, nearly half of the 1,000 teachers who responded to the union's questions said they had taken a second job during the school year to supplement their incomes, and roughly the same percentage said they were unable to make essential bill payments.

More than half said they were "actively looking" for jobs outside the School District. 

"Thousands of teachers every day go to work feeling profoundly disrespected," Gym said, urging Hite to display "new ideas and new commitments" to teachers.

Hite noted that $65 million annually in new city money — the result of a reassessment of commercial properties — helped the district "significantly increase" its contract offer to the PFT.

But, he said, the district must be financially responsible. It is in decent financial health, but faces an $800 million deficit over the next five years.

"Now is the time to get a fair contract that recognizes the hard work, sacrifices and dedication of our teachers," the superintendent told Council.

There has been a wide gulf between the PFT and the district, largely over wages. Teachers do not pay toward their health insurance, but PFT president Jerry Jordan has said that the union was willing to consider doing so in a new contract. 

Multiple Council members also expressed outrage over a little-known district policy: that the school system allows suburban students to pay tuition to attend city schools. 

Councilman Bill Greenlee said he had heard from constituents up in arms that suburban students took spaces at some of the city's elite magnet schools, meaning that qualified Philadelphia children were denied places there.

District officials said 12 students who live outside the city pay to attend Philadelphia public schools. They said the schools those pupils attended were not immediately available.

"That is bothersome," Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker said. 

Also on Council's mind was the lack of librarians in the system.

Just six certified librarians remain in a district of over 200 schools. Twelve other district schools have libraries that run with volunteer support, but no certified librarians.

Only five librarians are in the budget for next school year.

Hite said that whether a school has a librarian was a principal's choice. Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell dismissed that notion, saying that the district was forcing principals into budget positions where most could never afford a librarian.

Blackwell called the librarian situation "very, very sad."

"I am issuing a protest," said Blackwell. "I am asking that you reconsider the issue of librarians in schools."

During Wednesday's hearing, a murmur went up in Council chambers: Estelle Richman, Gov. Wolf's pick for the long-vacant fifth SRC seat, had been confirmed by the state Senate after a six-month wait.

A spontaneous cheer went up at the announcement. Richman, a widely respected former city, state and federal public servant, was in the room. 

Richman, whose confirmation process was especially protracted, was summoned to Harrisburg on Monday for a meeting with the Senate's Republican caucus. Members had questions about charters, contracts, and other matters, Richman said.

Philadelphia charters are a particularly hot topic in Harrisburg. House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) recently sent the SRC a letter accusing it of overreach in charter renewals.

On charters, Richman described herself as "pro-choice — I feel that we do need alternatives for parents. I am not categorically opposed to charter schools." But, she said, the district must move to shut underperforming charters.

Richman, whose daughter is a public school teacher in the Philadelphia suburbs, said she was eager to get a contract done.

"I believe in a fair contract," she said. "But I know from my years in public service that the devil is in the details, and those need to be negotiated."

Richman said she was not asked in Harrisburg this week about the future of the SRC. 

But, she said, "I didn't work this hard to get on to vote myself out as my first discussion point."

Richman still needs to be sworn in and fill out some paperwork, but expects to be formally seated on the SRC by its next scheduled meeting, next Thursday.

Wolf, Mayor Kenney, and Hite all hailed Richman's confirmation, saying they were eager to work with her.