Inquirer Editorial: Crisis requires union action
Other than the children, there are no innocents in this city's inability to avert a funding disaster in its public schools.
The teachers' union can't portray itself as just as victimized as students. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has consistently refused to indicate any willingness to make concessions. So it has no one to blame but itself for the School Reform Commission's decision to unilaterally take needed steps to address the crisis.
The SRC decided last week to suspend some teacher seniority rules and other regulations to give the district more flexibility in rehiring laid-off teachers and providing guaranteed step wage increases. It's not surprising that the union and some advocates vehemently oppose the SRC's action, saying the changes will allow the district to arbitrarily make personnel moves. But the suspension of work rules is permitted during a fiscal crisis under the Pennsylvania law that allowed the state's 2001 takeover of the district.
Having been given a fiscal rescue plan that still leaves the schools short, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has little choice but to do more belt-tightening so schools can open Sept. 9. He had threatened to delay or scale back the opening of school unless the district received assurances of $50 million from the city. Even with that promise, the district faces a staggering deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars.
By suspending state personnel rules, the district will be able to rehire laid-off employees based on the schools' specific needs, instead of by seniority, as required under the union contract. That will allow Hite to assign staff as needed and bring back counselors, aides, and support staff.
Faced with a $304 million budget gap, the district gave pink slips to nearly 4,000 employees earlier this summer, but it hopes to rehire about 1,000 of them. By changing the rules, the district will be able to cut costs by hiring licensed nurses who aren't certified to work in schools, and it can sell vacant property more easily.
Calling for "shared sacrifice," Hite had asked for $133 million in concessions from the teachers and other unions. But that request has fallen on deaf ears, which gave Gov. Corbett reason to withhold a $45 million federal grant that was contingent on the unions' agreeing to concessions.
One would think PFT President Jerry Jordan would be more than willing to compromise to save his members' jobs. But he has offered no counterproposals that would save or generate enough cash for the schools. Jordan has instead steadfastly maintained that his members won't accept any cuts in pay or benefits in a new contract after their current pact expires on Aug. 31.
"Now that our schools are officially in crisis mode, it's time for the city and state to meet their obligation to provide a quality public education for every child," Jordan said in a statement Wednesday. He is right to keep pushing the state to fulfill its constitutionally mandated obligation to adequately fund schools. The city must do more, too. But with the schools on the brink of collapse, the unions can't sit around waiting for everyone else to step up.