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Countdown, Day 26: Hite wants SRC to suspend school code's seniority provision

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[Updated, 10 p.m.]

Still lacking sufficient funds to open fully staffed schools on Sept. 9, Superintendent William Hite will ask the School Reform Commission to suspend parts of the state school code at a special meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday.

Many of the changes involve provisions governing labor practices. The District is seeking to bypass seniority rules as it restores positions and calls back laid-off workers. It also wants the ability to put at least a temporary halt to automatic pay increases based on longevity -- called "steps" -- for professional staff.

"We are in an untenable position," said Hite in an interview Wednesday afternoon. The requested changes, he said, will give the District more flexibility "to grapple with a budget that does not adequately support schools."

Other requested changes would allow the District to hire licensed nurses who are not specifically certified as school nurses. Hite said that no current school nurses would be displaced, but that vacancies could be filled with nurses who would not be paid as much.

Hite also wants the SRC to suspend a requirement about "independent school employees" so that teachers at the District's new virtual school would not have to be part of the collective bargaining unit.

The District is currently in negotiations with both its teacher and principal bargaining units, whose contracts expire on Aug. 31.

Heads of both the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the principals' union immediately reacted with dismay.

"This clearly represents the District negotiating in bad faith," said PFT president Jerry Jordan.

Hite repeated several times that seeking these code changes will give him more tools to make ends meet and staff schools adequately, and are not related to the contract talks.

But one byproduct is that he could achieve some goals the District is seeking in the negotiations through this means, including a weakening of seniority and elimination of automatic raises based on longevity.

"Professional employees get salary increases, required purely on the fact that they are here another year," Hite said. "This would allow the District to say, 'OK, we're not giving increases that way. Instead we're giving increases based on performance.'"

It also means that if the two parties don't reach agreement by the deadline, the current contract will not be what governs pay and assignment going forward.

More immediately, suspending a provision in the school code regarding recall from layoffs will allow the District to call back the employees they want, not just the most senior.

"This would allow the District to recall certain employees based on the specific needs of students rather than the length of service of employees," Hite said. He gave the example of counselors, all 300 of whom were laid off. If not all can be called back, Hite said he wants to make sure that especially in high schools, counselors who have been working with seniors for three years on college placement are able to return to the schools that they left because they have already been working with those students.

"If we are only able to retain a portion, it is important we can return the counselors to the buildings that are familiar and have been working with those young people," he said. "We want to take whatever actions we can take now to make sure that when children come back to schools, they have the ability to interact with that person."

Other changes being sought include one that would make it easier to close poor-performing charters and another would make it harder for charters that have exceeded enrollment caps they agreed to in writing to get reimbursed from the District for the excess students.

Other changes would make it easier for the District to sell surplus property more quickly.

The law that in 2001 established the School Reform Commission as the governing body for Philadelphia schools also gives the SRC the extraordinary power to waive provisions of the state school code.

Union leaders said that this action would complicate negotiations.

"To make the decision that the School District wants to suspend sections of the school code is nothing short of outrageous," said the PFT's Jordan. He was especially incensed about the provision that would allow the hiring of nurses not certified as school nurses.

He said there is a reason for the special certification. "I think that’s reprehensible. The school nurse is, in many cases, the only medical person many children see," he said.

On not using seniority to call back laid-off workers, Jordan said it is arbitrary to decide which are more valuable. Hite said that he was hoping to call back all the counselors, but wanted to be able to set priorities if he couldn't.

Jordan was blunt. "I don't normally curse, but that's bullshit," he said.

He noted that the union was able to negotiate a path to calling back secretaries so that each school was staffed, and wondered why Hite didn't want to do the same for these other job categories.

Secretaries will start work Monday, and about 75 percent of schools will have secretaries that worked in the buildings before, Hite said.

Robert McGrogan, head of the principals' bargaining unit, CASA, said he found the action "extraordinary" and troubling.

"Eliminating these rights would be discriminatory and subjective by nature," McGrogan said.

McGrogan  noted that the SRC didn't give his members a raise that is part of their current contract.

"The SRC reneged on the agreement we're in and we're still negotiating with them, trying to find efficiencies," he said. Now, the District is treating them "as a wart on their side," he said.

[Update: The Philadelphia School Partnership, which lobbied in Harrisburg to demand contract reforms in return for more state dollars, issued a statement in favor of the changes Hite wants -- and more.

"We encourage the SRC to go further and implement mutual consent across the board – suspending seniority as a factor in the hiring and transfer of all teachers – as a critical component of reforming public education in Philadelphia," said a statement from PSP director Mark Gleason. "It’s the linchpin for developing schools that give our children the very best chance to succeed."]

Hite said that he isn't taking these steps in an effort to placate state officials, who are withholding $45 million in appropriated funds pending a labor agreement with the PFT that is satisfactory to them. He said that it is his understanding that only a signed contract with the PFT would shake loose that money.

As far as the $50 million from the city -- a one-time payment from a loan using future sales tax revenue as collateral -- Mayor Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke made no announcement Wednesday on an agreement. Clarke wants to use some of the money from the extension of a 1 percent sales tax for pension costs and not turn all of it over to schools.

The School District of Philadelphia faces an unprecedented situation – uncertainty over whether it will be in a position to open safe and functioning schools in September.

This feature, appearing each weekday, is an effort to highlight developments and motivate action as we get closer to the beginning of the school year. We encourage readers to send us information about both concerns and breakthroughs to countdown@thenotebook.org.

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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.

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