Will cutting teacher benefits save Philadelphia schools?

A LITTLE RELIEF: The SRC’s move to require teachers to pay some health care costs will help Philadelphia schools’ budget crunch — a little.

Stacia Friedman | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — On a sunny October day, Jake Howie, a sophomore at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, arrived at school at 8 a.m. He didn’t go inside the neo-classical school building on Broad Street until noon.

His mother, Jennifer Howie, a teacher in another district, didn’t mind.

“Mom gave me permission to participate in the demonstration,” said Howie, who was one of 170 students who carried signs, shouted slogans and waved down passing cars instead of attending morning classes Wednesday.

The students protested action taken two days earlier by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission that cut teachers’ health care benefits to plug the gaping hole in the school budget.

Cy Wolfe, a junior at CAPA, and Leo Levy, a junior at Science Leadership School, organized and promoted the protest on Facebook:

“In light of the recent PFT contract drop, teachers around the district are talking about going on strike. This is exactly what Corbett wants them to do. If and when teachers go on strike the administration can point and say, ‘Look at the teachers look at what they’re doing to the students.’ We students cannot allow this to happen.”

The student organizers might want to place the blame squarely on Gov. Tom Corbett, but the situation is far more complex.

The SRC approved the unilateral change in its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in a brief meeting Monday. As a result, teachers will have to pay between $70 and $200 per month towards their health benefits — they previously contributed nothing — and the district will save an estimated $50 million this year. Those savings will help close a budget deficit and are crucial to the district’s ability to continue to provide services.

Fingers point to Harrisburg because the SRC, created in 2001 to address financial and academic problems in the state’s largest school district, is run by the state and because Corbett gave his approval to the commission’s decision to make teachers in Philadelphia pay a portion of their salary towards health benefits.

MAKE THEM PAY: Gov. Tom Corbett supports the SRC’s actions requiring teachers to pay for part of their own health care.

With all of this happening in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign that has revolved around the issue of education funding, it’s easy to turn this debate into a partisan one.

But politicians on both sides of the aisle acknowledge the SRC’s decision was the right one.

“In the 21st century, it becomes increasingly untenable that folks aren’t paying something for their health care coverage,” Mayor Michael Nutter told the Inquirer. “At this moment, those are the only additional dollars that are available to the school district.”

Even former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, and the editorial pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which usually favors labor, applauded the decision.

“Instead of feeling sorry for teachers, many Philadelphians may feel the educators have only themselves to blame for encouraging union President Jerry Jordan’s recalcitrance. And the concessions the SRC is now trying to impose on teachers can hardly be called draconian by current standards,” the Inquirer proclaimed.

Contrary to the student protest, this decision didn’t happen overnight. Or in a vacuum.

For over 21 months, negotiations between the SRC and the PFT have been in gridlock, resulting in dangerously overcrowded classrooms, understaffed schools and a lack of counselors, teachers aides and advanced foreign language instruction. There have even been complaints about a lack of toilets. In other words, the school district was in free fall.

The PFT, however, says not so fast.

“What they fail to mention is that Philadelphia educators are paid far less than their suburban counterparts, and spend thousands of their own dollars on classroom supplies for their students,” said Jerry Jordan, president of PFT, in a press release to his membership.

The PFT is challenging the legality of the changes to the contract.

The group also questions why the SRC meeting wasn’t announced on the SRC website as usual. Instead, it appeared under “legal notices” in a newspaper ad, stating the meeting was for “general purposes” with no mention of a vote on teacher contract issues.

According to a press release issued by the PFT, Jordan called every one of his union’s 11,500 members, urging them to attend the next SRC meeting on Thursday. The PFT questions the legality of SRC’s action, which required a special measure from the governor to circumvent regulations that would have prevented them from breaking the contract without notice.

What makes the SRC’s action a bombshell is the timing. Just one week ago, the Philadelphia City Council put a referendum on the ballot to disband the SRC, and mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo pledged to get rid of the SRC if elected. Some have suggested political motivations to boost Corbett in the polls.

Gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf is using the SRC decision to attack Corbett’s record on education.

“This is just one more situation that has been forced by Gov. Corbett’s cut to education…and his chronic neglect of the Philadelphia public schools,” Wolf said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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