DN editorial: Philadelphia teachers need a new deal, but can't expect miracles from city

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan

YOU CAN'T GET blood out of a turnip.

That old saying applies to the current contract talks between the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Actually, "current" is the wrong word. Maybe "never-ending" would be better.

The PFT and the 8,650 classroom teachers it represents hasn't had a contract in nearly four years. Its old one expired in 2013 and teachers have gone without any raises or step-up pay since then. That's a long dry spell.

The main issue dividing the sides is money. The district has offered a $115 million package over the next five years, with pay increases averaging four percent. However, there's a catch. The district also wants PFT members to contribute a portion of their salary to help pay for their health care. The teachers currently do not contribute. That surely will make a dent in any raises received.

PFT president Jerry Jordan won't consider the district's offer. He wants raises retroactive to the date the old contract expired. If met, it's a demand the district says will cost an additional $400 million over the life of a new contract.

The question is: Where will this additional money come from? Even with its more modest pay offer, it will eventually lead to a deficit. Adding on $400 million would deepen it. No one wants to fall into that hole again.

It's possible the state will add money to the pot, though that won't happen this year and probably not in 2018, when Gov. Wolf is up for re-election. The federal government could step forward with increased aid for public education. You could also win the Powerball tomorrow. The odds are about the same.

The city could give the district additional aid. But, Mayor Kenney has included no increase in the city's contribution to the district in his budget. City Council members have taken to YouTube, wearing buttons that read "Fair Contract Now" giving pitches in favor of the union's stand. Will Council come up with the money needed? There's no mention of that.

We'll go back to the first sentence: You can't get blood from a turnip. And you can't get more money from a district hemmed in by political and economic realities. Let's stipulate that the deal offered by the district isn't a good one - the teachers deserve more. But, let's also stipulate that the deal is unlikely to get any better - and could get worse if the district is buffeted by unexpected increases in expenses or cuts to outside aid.

For years, Jordan's strategy was simple. Confronted with pressure to succumb to work rule and benefit changes his members hated, the union played rope-a-dope, never advancing in negotiations, hoping for a better day. In a way, it worked. Tom Corbett (hostile to public ed) was replaced by Gov. Wolf (sympathetic to public ed), Michael Nutter (seen as the union's enemy) was replaced by Mayor Kenney (the union's friend).

The faces changed, but the dynamics did not. Perhaps Jordan is waiting for the School Reform Commission to be replaced with an independent school board, which might vote to spend the money needed to make PFT members happy. In what decade will that happen?

We think the time for rope-a-dope is over. Its usefulness as a strategy has ended. It is time - at long last - for the two sides to reach agreement on a contract recognizing the reality of here and now.