William J. Green
is chairman of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission
For almost two years, the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) have been in contract negotiations, seeking a labor agreement that positions our schools for long-term stability and invests in student success.
After 21 months, we remain far apart on key issues. Meanwhile, due to the district's devastating funding crisis, conditions in our schools are worsening. Stories about overcrowded classrooms, understaffed schools, and dwindling to nonexistent resources and services have become frighteningly common.
Our students need more, and they need it now.
The School Reform Commission last week suspended the PFT contract in order to achieve $43.8 million in savings this year - and nearly $200 million over four years - through changes to union health benefits. Philadelphia teachers previously paid nothing for health-care costs. By requiring new monthly contributions - $26 to $67 for individual coverage and up to $200 for family coverage - the district will be able to reallocate funds and restore resources that our schools currently lack.
The SRC did not seek changes to teachers' salaries, pensions, work rules, and job security with this action.
The benefit contributions are on par with those paid by other district employees, other city unions, and school districts across the state and nation. By modifying the benefits, the district can stave off additional cuts and create a new source of recurring revenue.
These funds will make a tangible, immediate difference to a school like 3,000-student Northeast High School, which was trying to function with an operating budget of $15,000 - about $5 per student.
In the first phase of disbursements, a $15 million infusion districtwide will begin to reverse cutbacks of the last two years. By easing the most difficult conditions in our schools, we can help reach students directly with better access to counselors, social services, and behavioral support. We can do more for students who are struggling with basic literacy. We can provide more current books and technology to supplement student learning. And we can work toward stabilizing our school communities with sustaining programs.
The heart of our schools is the relationship between adults and children. As we have laid off 5,000 staffers over the last two years, forcing those who remain to do more with less, that relationship has frayed. Many teachers have made tremendous sacrifices, frequently taking money from their own wallets to buy whatever was needed for students, whether it was crayons, copy paper, or enough food for a family to make it through the holiday weekend. They did it because it needed to be done, and because of their actions, we've been able to hold the system together for as long as we have.
But this funding crisis has made it harder for educators, students, and administrators - through no fault of their own - to focus on the primary mission of teaching, learning, and leading. When that is gone, what else is left?
This is not only a Philadelphia problem; school districts across Pennsylvania are in similar straits. That is why we must continue to push for a statewide funding formula to give all children, regardless of where they live and what they need, the best chance for success.
This is also why we cannot wait for others to do the right thing for our children. When and where we can act, we must.
I know PFT members are understandably concerned about the impact that canceling the contract might have on their salaries and work rules. Allow me to state unequivocally:
The School District of Philadelphia is committed to resolving those issues at the bargaining table. We hope Monday's action will help to spur an agreement sooner rather than later.
The district's funding problems can be traced to past actions and inaction, but our options today are few. We must resolve our structural imbalances to even hope for the future. The only way we can begin to have conversations about doing more for students, teachers, and other employees is to reconsider practices that are no longer sustainable.
As a result of this action and $10 million in federal funds, we will begin next year with additional resources from our state and city funders going primarily to classrooms, instead of filling what otherwise would have been a $70 million deficit. We can invest in the District's Action Plan 2.0, rather than ask for resources to avoid a doomsday scenario.
For our city, our teachers, and our children, we must start implementing the plan by Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and his team to make all of our schools great. We can no longer wait.