With less than 24 hours notice to the public, on Aug. 15 the Philadelphia School Reform Commission held a special “emergency” meeting for the purpose of approving a request by School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to suspend parts of the state school code.
Despite a chorus of boos and shouts of “shame on you” from 500 teachers, students and parents, the five-member, appointed board unanimously approved Hite’s requests that let him call back laid-off workers selectively instead of by seniority.
The SRC, much like Detroit’s Emergency Manager, has launched a full-speed attack on public education and union jobs under the pretense of austerity. Their action came less than a week after Hite announced that public schools might not be able to open as scheduled on Sept. 9 due to the District employing zero school safety workers, office staff or counselors, who were among the 4,000 workers laid off by the District in June. The SRC made their move less than 24 hours after over 100 school workers, students and community supporters ended a 12-hour hunger strike on the steps of the School District headquarters to highlight the need for adequate funding.
The morning of the SRC meeting, the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael “1%” Nutter, offered $50 million from sales tax revenue that was to go to city workers’ pensions, to rehire 1,000 staff members in order for the school year to start on time.
In addition to eliminating seniority, the SRC suspended parts of the school code that automatically give raises to teachers for years of service and protect existing work hours for employees with whom the district has not reached “an acceptable collective bargaining agreement.”
The SRC also suspended provisions of their code pertaining to charter schools. One change that the SRC claims would give them more oversight to deny renewal to underperforming charter schools lets a single SRC member or even a non-SRC hearing officer oversee hearings on suspensions or revocations of contracts. Given that several SRC members have direct association with groups advocating for charter schools, this rule would give them carte blanche to renew licenses to unaccountable charter schools.
Other code suspensions involved lifting an SRC-imposed limit on charter school enrollment and on per-student payments, effectively inviting the for-profit charters to enroll even more students at the same time draining district funds intended for public schools.
Sylvia Simms, the supposed parents’ representative on the SRC, who is in fact on the payroll of Comcast, explained Aug. 15 why she supported the SRC’s actions: “Too many people talk about the adults. Too many people worry more about the adults than the students they’re supposed to serve. So I vote yes in support of Dr. Hite.” (http://tinyurl.com/l8w59fe)
Such shortsighted arguments barely hide her intentions to destroy quality public education for young people in Philadelphia.
Although Superintendent Hite and SRC Chair Pedro Ramos claimed that the rule suspensions are a “temporary” measure needed to get through the current crisis, most of the revisions provide for continuation into future school years.
‘This is war’
“The only reason the District is pursuing these suspensions is to destroy collective bargaining and eliminate the PFT [the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers],” said Evette Jones, the community engagement coordinator, in an email blast to mobilize for the Aug. 15 SRC meeting. Even with the short notice, hundreds of opponents of the SRC actions filled the hearing room beyond capacity while hundreds more were barred from coming in. Several dozen protesters successfully broke through police barricades to get inside.
Teachers who spoke out against the SRC rule change also voiced concern that the elimination of job protection via seniority will have a chilling impact on teachers active in fighting back against the SRC dictates.
Middle school teacher Gail Kantor called the code suspension “an insult to me, my colleagues and the students of this city,” noting that she and other teachers often pay for supplies and other children’s needs out of their own pockets.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan called the SRC vote an “attempt to decimate this union and to violate everything we have worked for over the years. They want to go back to a system of patronage where they could hire people based on race or whoever the ward leaders wanted to give jobs.” Jordan laid the blame for the crisis on SRC mismanagement of school finances and vowed that the union would fight back including taking legal action.
Manufactured crisis to destroy
public education, unions
The PFT has been in negotiations with the District over their contract, which is set to expire Aug. 31. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has tied the release of $45 million in additional funding for the District to a demand that the teachers’ union accept $130 million in concessions that would reduce wages and benefits by up to 13 percent and extend the workday by an hour. At the same time, the state has cut education funding this year by over $1 billion, including a cut of over $300 million to Philadelphia schools.
Meanwhile, PFT members are the lowest paid teachers in the 6 million person Philadelphia area. In effect, the SRC vote imposed non-negotiated contract provisions on the teachers. The PFT has refused to accept these concessions, which would drive compensation back to 1967 levels. Yet their hands are legally tied by a 2001 Pennsylvania law which limits their ability to strike and allows for the SRC to impose nonwage and benefit working conditions.
On Aug. 22, thousands of teachers, parents, students and community members will march on the SRC to demand full, fair funding for Philadelphia schools. Marchers will start at the tax-dodging Comcast headquarters, also the headquarters of NBC Universal. Then, marchers will descend on the City Hall and to the SRC’s next meeting.
This march will be important in setting the stage for a broader struggle, including the possibility of a strike or boycott at the beginning of the school year.