Ahead of Monday contract vote, some PFT members see 'solid contract'

Michael Franklin, teacher at Chester Arthur Elementary School, said the PFT contract proposal is a better deal than he expected, despite the fact that it does not make him fully whole for years of missed wages.

Michael Franklin and his wife were touring a prospective house when he got the email: The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had a tentative contract.

It felt like a sign as he contemplated buying his first home. Franklin, a Philadelphia School District science and math teacher who has gained national recognition for his work, has eight years of experience, but has been frozen at a fourth-year educator’s salary – $54,365 – since 2012. He doesn’t get any extra pay for having earned his master’s degree, and is earning $18,000 less than he expected to be making at this point, based on the last contract.

Franklin had to take on a second job to make ends meet.

And now, a breakthrough. The contract isn’t perfect, said Franklin, a teacher at Chester Arthur, a K-8 school, but it is significant. The deal will cost the district $395 million, hundreds of millions more than the school system has budgeted for teachers over the three-year life of the contract, and a sum that will require additional funds from the city and state or, eventually, layoffs.

“The proposal allows me to take those next steps forward in my life with my family,” he said. “It’s not where I expected to be nine years in when I signed on with the district, but it’s definitely something that will keep me in Philadelphia through the life of the contract.”

The pact, which nearly 12,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, secretaries, and other school staff are scheduled to vote on Monday night, will last through 2020 if educators approve it.

To be certain, it does not make Franklin or anyone else whole. Though the contract has some salary increases and lump-sum payments, and includes the restoration of pay for years of experience and advanced degrees, he will still lose out on thousands.

“Given the realities of our political landscape right now, it’s really good,” Franklin said. “It’s a better deal than what I was expecting. They did a pretty good job on all sides finding something that meets the needs of a majority of the members, but it is a shame that there are now years that a number of us have worked that we essentially don’t get any credit for. There was a lot of talk about shared sacrifices, but I feel as if we teachers sacrificed a whole lot.”

The deal gives Franklin and most teachers who have not yet hit the top of the pay scale one retroactive step in the form of a bonus check, bumps them up another step in September, and then another in 2018. In 2019, they get both a step and a 2 percent pay increase. Those hired prior to Sept. 1, 2014 would also jump an additional step. In 2020, those hired before Sept. 1, 2015 would advance another step.

The PFT asked teachers not to speak about the contract until the vote, and many declined to do so publicly. Many teachers said they were spending the weekend digesting the terms of the contract, which was tentatively agreed to Thursday night and announced Friday. The terms were released Saturday. On Sunday, some gathered at meetings organized by the Caucus of Working Educators, an activist group within the PFT, to process it together.

Kelley Collings, cochair of the Caucus, which has challenged union president Jerry Jordan’s leadership, said the group was not taking a pro or con position on the contract.

After a weekend of intense discussions about its affect on teachers, students, and families of the city, Caucus leaders decided “to encourage everyone to cast an informed vote” by seeking answers “to many unanswered questions” at the ratification meeting.

The Caucus calculated how much members at different levels of experience and education would earn through the life of the contract, and how much they would lose out on. Those hurt most would be educators with just a few years’ experience when the contract was frozen. Minus lump-sum payments, a fifth-year teacher with a master’s, frozen at step two, would lose more than $25,000, including health insurance costs and missed steps over the term of the contract. A fifth-year teacher with a bachelor’s would lose nearly $24,000.

But Klint Kanopka was sure how he was going to vote: yes.

The deal comes too late for the high school physics teacher at Academy at Palumbo, who planned to retire from the district but resigned, reluctantly, because of the contract. Kanopka, who is in the same boat as Franklin – he has eight years of experience and a master’s degree and is paid as if he’s a fourth-year teacher with a bachelor’s – is headed to a doctoral program at Stanford, where his graduate assistant position will pay more than his current salary. (He is eligible to vote because his resignation is effective at the end of the school year, which for teachers runs through June.

He is one of a flood of teachers from Palumbo leaving this year, many because of the long contract stalemate.

Had the contract come this time last year, he absolutely would have stayed, Kanopka said. But without a pay raise on the horizon, feeding himself just got too hard, he said.

He calculated how much he would lose over his career if he had stayed: $68,000.

“That’s huge to a reasonably young guy who rents a crappy apartment on Snyder Avenue and would have loved to purchase a house in a neighborhood where my students live,” said Kanopka, whose teaching has also earned multiple prestigious awards. “But, given fiscal realities, it’s a pretty solid contract.”

Kanopka said he was pleasantly surprised by the retroactive step members will be awarded and the double step toward the end of the contract. And he’s frankly glad that members will begin paying toward their health care – 1.25 percent of base salary in September, 1.5 percent in 2019.

“The health-care thing is good because it puts us in a better light with other people who resented us for not paying for our health care, even though our salaries were pretty tragic,” said Kanopka.

He is a self-professed “skeptic of all leadership” anywhere, but Kanopka said he thought the PFT team achieved a win.

“I think the PFT did a good job of balancing the needs of older members, newer members, and future members, too,” he said.

Kelsey Green was hunting for other jobs, but the contract is enough to keep her in Philadelphia, where she is in her fourth year of teaching at Wilson Middle School in the Northeast. She is now paid as a brand-new teacher.

“I think every teacher and every student will benefit from it,” said Green, 26. “As a teacher, this contract makes me feel appreciated. I feel I can give even more of myself to my students, and at the end of the day, that’s the end goal.”

She might also be able to move out of her parents’ house, Green said, to think about marriage and a family down the road, to handle her $800 monthly student loan payments with more room to spare.

Green said she’ll be proud to go to the Liacouras Center to vote “yes” with her mother, a senior career teacher in the district who also feels like the deal does good things for educators at her experience level. It also feels like a nod to her father’s father, who, she said, was a founding member of the PFT.

“My grandfather went on strike many times in the past to give me the right to be able to vote for this,” said Green. “This is a good deal for the people of Philadelphia.”

Whether most teachers will agree with her remains to be seen. But a source close to the negotiations said that if PFT members vote down the contract, it could be painful.

“The district has no requirement to keep the amount of the current offer on the table,” the source said. “There is every likelihood that it could be pulled or reduced.”