by Jeff Rosenberg
The School District’s recent attempt to void the teachers’ contract has brought out the best in our leaders.
Earlier this month the Philadelphia Daily News reported, “The education advocacy group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools has taken legal steps to challenge the School Reform Commission’s decision last month to cancel the teacher contract.” Local rabble-rousers need to take a step back and a deep breath. This is my 38th year teaching for the School District of Philadelphia. My colleagues are teachers. Some of my closest friends are teachers. I married a teacher. I am now risking becoming a pariah, but after reflecting, let’s give our leadership their due. (I was able to do this by attempting to stand in the shoes of Philadelphia School District spokesman Fernando Gallard and anticipating how he likely would have responded.)
The leadership was gutsy and cunning and showed ingenuity by conducting the meeting to void the contract in a manner that was antithetical to our democratic principles and practices, and then exerted superhero willpower by turning a deaf ear to the public criticism and reaffirming their dogma right or wrong.
SRC Chairman Bill Green exhibited innovative leadership when he initially responded to the public outcry of the stealthily arranged meeting as happenstance, “We were planning to have the meeting next Thursday, and it just didn’t work out for us. And so Monday was not a targeted date. It was simply the date that we could get it done.” Later he referred to it as a “legal matter.”
Mayor Nutter attempted to calm the furor by dismissively saying, “I don’t know if any of the folks who are upset about this would be happy if the meeting was conducted in the middle of Broad Street at noon.” (When city council scrapped his proposal to sell PGW without a public hearing, he disappointedly said, “It is the opposite of transparency,” and referred to it as the “biggest copout.” This revealed the Mayor’s uncanny discretion on when to apply “transparency” and identify and quantify a “copout.”)
Chairman Green, Superintendent Hite, Mayor Nutter, and Governor Corbett, demonstrated their solidarity and compulsion for fairness when they fearlessly stood up to the teachers, and in virtual unison professed to anyone who was breathing that everyone else but the teachers has “stepped up” with concessions for the children, including the district blue collar workers and principals. Straight-shooter SRC Commissioner Sylvia Simms got to the crux, “We need to stop playing games on the backs of our children.” (She maintained her tell-it-like-it-is authority when she berated protesting children that they were “probably in failing schools.”) Mayor Nutter referred to it as a “sharing environment.”
They deserve the credit for bringing about that altruistic environment when the other unions were first “stepped on” before they “stepped up.” The “concessions” were more like strong-arm tactics of coercion, as the other unions were threatened with inventive and resourceful alternatives, including layoffs, private-contractors, and the unilateral imposition of work rules with even more severe cutbacks. Faced with fear and mounting pressure, they acquiesced. When things get tough, the tough get going. It required strong, unyielding, and adroit leadership.
So how does this creative out-of-the-pocket and daring shakedown shakeout? It will cost beginning teachers opting for family coverage with a surcharge and “Buy Up” $7,537, 17.39 percent of their lavish $43,358 salary; it will cost teachers with six years of experience and a required bachelor’s or equivalent $8139, 14.40 percent of their affluent $56,531 salary; and it will be 11.31 percent of the purported $72,000 average teacher salary. (Their unlimited personal expense accounts for classroom spending will go untouched.)
These unprecedented and burdensome cost initiatives imposed by the leadership are the equivalent of pay-cuts that will bring millions for the children. When teachers get raises, they generally do not exceed 2 to 4 percent cost of living rates. The higher end percentages of the health care contributions easily exceed the salary raises for an entire 3 to 4-year contract.
This should allow the district to maintain and even increase the already colossal teacher turnover, keeping those aggravating, tertiary labor costs down. The PFT reports that 60 percent of teachers have five years or less tenure. Our leadership is on top of this national cutting-edge trend to create a transient, unstable teacher corps by taking away any incentive to stay, along with any school-based security and stability.
When Superintendent Hite was asked about his own cabinet making comparable health care contributions, he politely responded after you, giving teachers an opportunity to lead.
At the same time, our leadership has expressed compassion for the teachers’ plight and acknowledged how tirelessly they worked with their students. A tolerant Superintendent Hite has even invited them back to the bargaining table, full well knowing that they might lack the trust required in good faith negotiations because of the ongoing violations by the district and SRC. It takes incredible chutzpa for that kind of consideration and perseverance.
Amazingly, there is still enough of that self-assurance leftover, along with the foresight and resolve, to begin spending 14 million dollars they do not yet possess. Directing his principals to confer with their teachers on how to spend their own money, shows his unshaken belief in cooperation and shared decision-making.
Best of all, by their actions and unwavering example, the charismatic SRC, district, and government leadership earned our gratitude for inspiring and motivating the Philadelphia community in general and the rank and file in particular to come together and take a stand (albeit contrary to their own) in a show of solidarity the city hasn’t seen in years. The familiar chants of “Shame on you” were especially passionate and tight. (And to Mayor Nutter, I think the attendees were generally satisfied with this meeting on Broad Street in broad daylight.)
This past episode to void the contract and its aftermath has brought out the best of our leaders. Sadly, our leaders are not getting the credit they think they deserve, which is something every teacher can relate to.
In the meantime, after expressing my unstinting admiration for our SDP leadership, I’m hoping that I might be able to at least get back into the good graces of my dog with a belly rub or two, as I will certainly be sharing his house.
Jeff Rosenberg is an education writer and longtime Philadelphia public schoolteacher.