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A more conciliatory tone about contract negotiations

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Lost in the hubbub yesterday caused by the resignation of School Reform Commission member Heidi Ramirez were signals from Superintendent Arlene Ackerman that she is taking a more conciliatory tone in negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Ackerman has said she wants full site-based selection of teachers, a longer day and year, and control of most teacher preparation time. Under the law that gave the state control over the District, she can impose those terms. In the past, Ackerman has made it clear that she is prepared the so-called "nuclear option."

The SRC has the power to dictate teacher assignment, lengthen the school day and year, and regulate the use of teacher time, among other things.

She is also looking to establish some kind of "strategic compensation," or pay-for-performance. The District must still negotiate compensation or benefits. 

At a press availability following the SRC meeting on Wednesday, Ackerman said that  the District and PFT negotiating teams have been meeting two or three times a week and are "making progress."

"I've been really pleased that on some of these tough issues, the PFT has been willing to engage in discussions with the District," she said. Asked whether she was prepared to use the so-called "nuclear option" and impose terms, she replied that "right now, we're just concentrating on trying to get some collaboration around these issues and not even go there yet. Maybe we can get there without even having to think about that because we are talking.... Nothing is off the table."

Although the PFT contract expires on Aug. 31, it is unlikely an agreement will be reached by then -- because, Ackerman also pointed out, serious talks about salaries and benefits can't occur until the state has adopted a budget, giving the District a clear financial picture. And that may not happen until well into September. "There's a lot hinging on when the budget is finalized," she said.

Last week, PFT president Jerry Jordan sent a letter to members outlining the District's proposals and saying they would "weaken your voices in your schools and workplaces, limit your professional opportunities, and eliminate all traditional transfers, replacing them with site selection and arbitrary administrative assignment." He characterized the District's proposals as  focusing on "unilateral control, not quality education."

Jordan's letter also said that "the task of improving our public schools takes shared vision, shared responsibility and shared accountability. It requires reform done with us, not to us, as the Obama administration has said."

He is right about that, and maybe Ackerman and the SRC are coming to realize -- as did her predecessors -- that imposing terms on a reluctant or even hostile union will not get the District where it wants to go. Notebook board member Ron Whitehorne, a longtime teacher, observed that the administration, "instead of assuming it has an exclusive franchise on what children and schools need, should seek to engage teachers in the work of reform." He cautioned that the nuclear option also raises the specter of job actions by teachers and a buildup of teacher resentment that can only hurt student learning.

There are many activist groups in the city, some that include teachers themselves, who realize a need for reshaping the teachers' contract in significant ways. But let's hope that both sides recognize that it needs to be done collaboratively and not by fiat.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.