PHILADELPHIA School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced Monday that the district will impose work rules allowing principals to fill teacher vacancies in the fall without regard to seniority.
The district also asked the state Supreme Court to declare that the School Reform Commission has the power under the state takeover law to make the changes on its own, without approval of the teachers' union.
Jerry Jordan, president of the 11,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the union would file a challenge in the state's top court.
"The school district and the SRC have chosen to forsake negotiating in good faith in favor of a legal end-around to avoid meaningful contract talks with the PFT," Jordan said. "It's another example of the SRC totally disrespecting the PFT member teachers and others who work in schools everyday."
Hite said the district's new staffing guidelines will go into effect for the 2014-15 academic year and were designed to provide flexibility and ensure that teachers are the best fit for their schools.
For months, he has been saying that the district needs to modify its work rules to educate students more effectively and compete with charter schools. Seniority will be just one of several factors in making assignments.
Over union protests, the SRC last August temporarily suspended some seniority rules to allow Hite to recall some employees who were laid off last summer. He said that change enabled him to return some staffers to the schools where they had been employed in June.
The superintendent said Monday he had hoped to be able to change the work rules through negotiations with the PFT. But, despite 14 months of talks and the expiration of the last contract in August, that had not occurred.
SRC Chairman Bill Green said he still hopes the PFT agrees to a contract, "but they demonstrated over the last year and a quarter that they're not willing to come to a resolution that we can accept."
Reacting to the district's court filing, Jordan said: "It is the district that has chosen to go this route. We have not reached an impasse."
Hite said the new policy was being announced now because principals will receive their school budgets later this week and must consider staffing.
He said he hopes the district will not have to lay off staff as it did last summer, when nearly 4,000 employees received pink slips. But if there are layoffs, Hite said, seniority would no longer be the sole criterion in determining who is let go.
He recalled attending a graduation last year where students gave the best teacher award to a young chemistry instructor. As the teacher accepted the plaque, the principal told Hite the teacher was being laid off because he was the most recent hire.
"We want to avoid those type of situations," Hite said. "That's not to say that we're completely removing seniority, but we are removing it as the sole factor in making those kinds of decisions."
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district's petition to the court covers only the work rule changes. He said the district is not seeking to impose other conditions or economic terms.
Under the new staffing policy, beginning next fall, all school vacancies will be filled through what is known as a "site-selection process." School committees that include parents and other teachers make recommendations, but principals have the final say.
Although Hite has said that the financially strapped district needs more than $120 million in savings and concessions from its unions, the work rule changes would not provide any savings.
"The overarching focus is to ensure we are matching to the best of our ability the skills and abilities of teachers to the needs of their schools and communities," he said.
The superintendent said that during a recent summit, students said that they need teachers who want to be at their schools and not those who are annoyed by their work assignments.
Under the new rules, principals will be able to require teachers to adopt the practices of the district's most successful schools and spend their "prep" periods collaborating with each other, discussing effective practices, or reviewing data and student work.
Teachers now have discretion over how they use their 45-minute prep time. But Jordan said many teachers do not get the prep period they are entitled to and most who do spend it on schoolwork.
"They are preparing lessons plans, marking papers and tutoring students," Jordan said. "They're filling out the reams of paperwork that teachers have to fill out everyday. It's not as if they're sitting around twiddling their thumbs."
Hite's announcement came less than a week after the SRC approved a new contract with the principals' union that included significant givebacks, including 16 percent salary cuts, contributions toward benefits, and weakened seniority rights.