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Judge stops teacher layoffs

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by Dale Mezzacappa and Benjamin Herold

Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox granted a temporary restraining order Monday sought by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that stops any teacher layoffs at least until a hearing on June 14.

The PFT went to court while principals were distributing notices in their schools to more than 1,500 teachers.

The union argued that the District wasn't following the contract because it was exempting teachers working in Promise Academies, which are turnaround schools run by the District and largely staffed by young teachers. The contract calls for layoffs to proceed according to seniority.

"Close to 200 teachers who received layoff notices today should not had been laid off had the Promise Academy teachers been treated the same way all other teachers were treated," said PFT president Jerry Jordan.

In the late afternoon, the District released a statement on layoffs that did not mention the lawsuit by PFT but called it a "dark week" for the District. The statement said that 3,024 layoff notices were issued. Of those, 1,523 were for teachers and 490 for central office staff.

UPDATE: This evening the District issued a statement on the layoffs suit. It says that the judge's ruling means that the District may not suspend any teachers until the Jun. 14 hearing, and that the District will not comment further on pending litigation.

Jordan said that under the order the the District is supposed to send emails to the teachers rescinding the layoffs today.

The atmosphere in schools today was grim. Jordan said that never before in his experience had principals been given the task of distributing pink slips. Teachers agreed.

"I don't think this was respectful way to do it," said Gail Lynch, a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School with 21 years in the District. "We work with kids, and we're expected to show them respect and professionalism, but we're not given the same. This is hard for me. I think teachers do a really difficult job, but people don't understand or respect what we do."

She described a mood of "anticipation" in the building all day.

Ruchi Gupta, an English and creative writing teacher who is with Teach for America, said she didn't know coming into work today what to expect. 

"There was fear, nervousness, anger. There is a lot of misinformation out there,"  Gupta said, adding that she was upset that she learned more about what was going on from the Inquirer than from the District. 

"No one really knew what was going on. I didn't know until 3 this afternoon. There was a lot of guess work, a lot of what-ifs. I'm still kind of dubious about my lack of a letter."

Gupta did not get a layoff notice. "I'm excited to be here next year, but it's kind of a Catch-22. It's uncomfortable to be one of the only younger teachers I know of to still be here next year. I want solidarity in the layoff process. I'm excited and nervous.  Financially, I would have been in a bad strait. More than that, I'm also committed to helping close the achievement gap. It's mind boggling that people who work so hard are being pushed out."

Another young teacher who did not get a letter was Gregory Ellis, who teaches English and drama.

"We love our jobs, and we love our kids. We want consistency, and that's all the kids want, too."

The District was scheduled to hold its annual Celebration of Excellence on Tuesday, at which it honors a Teacher of the Year as well as an exceptional alumnus/a and administrator. But it canceled the event in deference to the timing of the layoffs. A statement said it would be rescheduled for later in the year.

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