Earlier this month, the city's Office of Property Assessment announced that an extra $65 million per year would be pouring into the School District of Philadelphia's coffers due to commercial property re-evaluations triggered by former Mayor Michael Nutter's Actual Value Initiative.
This money must be used in its entirety in order to finally settle a collective bargaining agreement with the hard-working members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Such a move would start rebuilding trust and stability between the district and public school educators.
The district's most recent offer is based on the $107 million it has budgeted over the next five years toward settling the PFT contract, with potential federal funding increasing that amount to $153 million, according to data released by Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson. That offer, however, does not account for the hundreds of millions that members of the PFT have already sacrificed in lost and frozen wages over the past few years, including all the money they have donated by buying their own supplies. The PFT's counter-offer takes these sacrifices into account, but would cost the district closer to $500 million over the next five years.
This financial discrepancy has always been the main sticking point and now, like a halcyon from above, the funding has incredibly become available. This $65 million over the next five years would add $325 million to the district's bottom line. Added to the $153 million they have already budgeted, the School District could now offer a contract to the PFT valued at $473 million.
Why should the district dedicate these funds exclusively to settling with the union?
The PFT has gone without a contract since 2013 and without a raise since 2012. During that time, the district has attempted to cancel the PFT's collective bargaining agreement, spent millions fighting the union in court, and violated the contract on hundreds of separate occasions.
Most importantly, many of these violated provisions in our agreement are not simply about wages and benefits — such as those guaranteeing lower class sizes, support staff, and the timely rostering of students — but are designed to ensure a quality education for the children of the city.
None of this, however, has deterred the district from waging its war on teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses, paraprofessionals, school psychologists, and countless other PFT members.
As a result, the animosity between the district and its most vital employees has reached epic proportions. Educators have left the classroom in droves for other districts or careers, heated testimonies have dominated the monthly meetings of the School Reform Commission, and even a billboard has gone up on Interstate 95 as proof of the anger that courses through the veins of the thousands of individuals who make this city's schools function.
Most recently, on International Women's Day, female PFT members in schools throughout the district engaged in morning pickets and took a personal day in an attempt to publicly highlight the struggle that continues to plague their profession. A profession dominated nearly 80 percent by women without a contract demonstrates that the wage gap between the genders is alive and real.
Taking all of these points into account, it should come as no surprise that, in the most recent annual survey conducted by the School District, more than 75 percent of PFT members district-wide indicated that they were "not respected at all" by the SRC.
We need to create a new beginning in order to heal this acrimonious rift - and this $65million in additional recurring funding can do just that. Let's come together for the betterment of our schools and the children of Philadelphia.
Study after study has shown that the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement is teacher quality. If we want to retain such quality teachers, we need to compensate them fairly.
It's time to give our teachers, our schools, and our students a contract they can rely on. It's time to start rebuilding trust between the PFT and the School District.
For once, we have the funding to do just that.
George Bezanis is a social studies teacher at Central High School. He serves as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' representative at Central and is a leader of the union's Caucus of Working Educators.