School panel won't push to ditch seniority - for now
PHILADELPHIA Despite being urged to unilaterally ditch seniority rules, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission said it would not do that - at least not right away.
For the time being, the SRC will focus on negotiations with the teachers' union to get changes in the use of seniority in teaching assignments.
"We're going to continue to negotiate at this time in good faith," spokesman Fernando Gallard said Monday afternoon, moments after a coalition of education and parents' groups held a news conference calling on the SRC to get rid of seniority rules.
Gallard declined to comment on whether the SRC has the authority to throw out seniority provisions in the existing contract and give Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. a free hand in teacher assignments.
"I cannot at this time speak specifically on the district's legal opinion," Gallard said.
That may be just as well. It is unclear whether the SRC has the authority to unilaterally change work rules under the law that allowed the state to take over the district in 2001.
Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said that under state law the SRC has the power to dump seniority rules and should use it.
"Moving away from seniority as the basis for personnel decisions is the right thing to do for our children," Gleason told reporters on the steps of the district administration building at 440 N. Broad St.
Gleason said that negotiations with the 15,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had dragged on too long, and that it was time for the SRC to assign teachers to classrooms without regard for seniority and ignore seniority for layoffs and rehires.
But at least one former SRC member who had been briefed by district lawyers on the law in the past said the legality of unilaterally making such work-rule changes was not clear cut. "I think on the issue of this, the district has a case and the union has a case," said Michael Masch, an original member of the SRC. He served for a year before he became budget secretary under former Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003.
The section in the law cited by the coalition says the SRC is not "required" to negotiate "staffing patterns and assignments, class schedules, academic calendar, places of instruction, pupil assessment, and teacher preparation time."
Despite that language, Masch said, the SRC has bargained with the union over those issues since 2002. "In three contracts, they bargained over all these things," said Masch, who was involved in negotiations when he was a district financial official between 2008 and 2011. "They didn't have to, but they did."
PFT attorney Ralph J. Teti has said the union would wait to see what the SRC does and then weigh its options. But he said he thought the law gave the PFT the upper hand.
Mike Churchill, a lawyer who works with the Public Interest Law Center, called the takeover law complicated and subject to different interpretations. Sections include broad language as well as specific exemptions.
None of it, Churchill said, has been tested in the courts.
Gov. Corbett, Mayor Nutter, the SRC, and Hite all have said they want to toss out seniority and give principals the authority to select new hires.
The PFT, however, has defended the practice, one of the union's most cherished rights. "The seniority provisions in the school code were implemented to protect school employees from the atmosphere of patronage," union president Jerry Jordan said in a statement. "Instead of focusing on how to turn every teacher into an at-will employee, we should be discussing ways to recruit and retain the best educators for our students."
Gleason and other advocates said they were calling on the district for action now because it could persuade the state to free $45 million, allowing the district to rehire counselors and other vital personnel. Gleason was joined by Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the state group PennCan, and several parents who urged the commission to act. "I have witnessed firsthand the downside of seniority and the impact it has on our students," said parent Nina Liou, president of the Bache-Martin Home and School Association.
She said the school lost a new, well-regarded teacher two years ago when a central office administrator near retirement was forced back into the classroom.
"We ended up losing a younger teacher who clearly was the better choice to be in the classroom with our first-grade students," Liou said.