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Why is the teachers' contract so important anyway?

The contract between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School District of Philadelphia governs the pay, benefits, and working conditions for 21,000 school employees, including over 11,000 teachers. The current agreement, negotiated in 2000, expired August 31, but it was extended.

The current contract is a 150-page document that sets a range of terms under which schools must operate; it addresses such matters as the length of the school day and year, teacher work schedules, limits on class size, and the process for teacher assignment and transfers. Union supporters point out that the union has fought for and won contract language that improved conditions in schools through provisions like class size limits and the requirement that every elementary school have a counselor.

The School Reform Commission, which represents the School District in negotiations, had proposed over 400 changes to the current contract, but a much smaller number of issues still divide the two sides at the bargaining table.

What are the difficult issues in negotiations between the School District and the teachers' union?

Both sides seem to agree that the biggest issues are salaries, health benefit costs, funding of the union's health and welfare fund, and issues about how teachers are assigned.

The District is calling for a change in the seniority-based system for teacher assignment by giving principals authority to recruit and select teachers to fill vacancies. "I'm not aware of any major urban system that still has a seniority system like this," says District CEO Paul Vallas.

The union argues that the SRC's proposals on teacher assignment "give principals all the power." Union leaders say the SRC is also damaging teacher professionalism by trying to do away with the role of teacher-elected building committees in school decisions.

What does each side say they want?

The District says it needs flexibility to address the staffing needs at schools where experienced staff are needed the most. District officials maintain that principals are being held accountable for their school's performance and therefore must have the authority to be able to determine who works in their building.

The union argues that the overriding staffing problem in the District is that the system has more than 2,000 emergency-certified teachers. The PFT claims that however much teachers are moved around, the shortage of qualified teachers will not go away unless working conditions for teachers are improved.

A coalition of community groups has been pushing for both parties in the contract talks to address a "Teacher Equity Platform" that would remedy the lack of qualified staff in many high-poverty schools. The platform calls for site-based teacher selection via school-based committees as part of a broad initiative to improve teacher recruitment and retention and provide strong incentives to attract qualified teachers to hard-to-staff schools.

Some schools already practice site selection of teachers. How is the SRC's site selection plan different?

Under a contract provision adopted in 2000, Philadelphia schools can opt to switch to a system for school-based selection of teachers after approval by a vote of at least two-thirds of the staff.

Once a school's staff elects to use site selection, hiring decisions are made through the school rather than the District's central office. Interested teachers must interview at the school, and hiring decisions are made regardless of seniority, except when two teachers are deemed equally qualified.

In these site selection schools, a personnel committee composed of the principal, three teachers, and a parent is responsible for setting hiring criteria, interviewing candidates, and making hiring recommendations. At high schools, a student or assistant principal also serves on the committee. The principal makes final hiring decisions. All candidates are pre-screened by the District's human resources department.

Although the number of site selection schools has tripled since the program began, there are only 44 schools currently using the process. The District wants to do away with the site selection approval process - filling vacancies through site selection at all schools - and wants the principal to create the committee that conducts teacher selection. At schools that are being "restructured" because of failure to meet "No Child Left Behind" performance standards, a District proposal would give principals the ability to select and shuffle their staffs freely for two years without involvement of a committee.

"What we're looking to do is to identify a point of accountability," says SRC Chair James Nevels. "We see the principal being that person."

How has the state takeover affected the teachers' contract?

Under the state takeover law, Act 46, the SRC has the authority to unilaterally impose new contract provisions, and teachers are forbidden to strike. Teachers who strike are threatened with the suspension of their certification. Under the law, the SRC is freed from any obligation to bargain over a long list of issues such as staffing assignments, teacher preparation time, or reductions in the number of employees.

PFT President Ted Kirsch called the Pennsylvania takeover law "discriminatory" - its collective bargaining provisions apply exclusively to Philadelphia teachers - and said it makes negotiations difficult. But he maintained that the union has actions it can take if management tries to impose a contract.

After two contract extensions, School Reform Commission Chair James Nevels said that the SRC was prepared to consider imposing a new contract if an agreement was not reached by the September 30 deadline. Union officials have warned that imposing a contract would risk an escalating confrontation and have said the PFT would support an additional contract extension.

How do teacher pay and working conditions in Philadelphia compare to elsewhere in the region?

Not favorably. One result of these disparities is that many experienced Philadelphia teachers move to suburban school systems.

The 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer "Report Card on the Schools" reported that while starting teacher salaries in Philadelphia are now slightly above average among districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's top teacher salary is lower than all but seven of 64 districts in the region.

In 12 Southeastern Pennsylvania school districts, a majority of the teachers make more than $70,000 annually. In Philadelphia, only 1 percent of teachers make that amount or more.

Class size is one key indicator of teacher working conditions, and despite recent reductions in primary grade class size in many Philadelphia schools, the average second grade class size of 25 students last year was tied for highest in the region.

What can you do?

Contact your elected officials. Several area advocacy groups are pushing state officials for changes in the state's system for funding education to address some of the inequities between Philadelphia and its surrounding suburban districts.

Express your opinion. The twice-monthly School Reform Commission meetings have a period for public comment. To sign up to speak, call 215-299-7850. CEO Paul Vallas can be contacted at pvallas@ phila.k12.pa.us. To contact the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, call 215-587-6738 or email sensei@voicenet.com.

For phone numbers of District, city, and state officials, see More schools making AYP.

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Paul Socolar

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Paul is the Notebook's former editor and publisher and also one of its founders in 1994.