With the start of the new year, the two sides in the ongoing labor talks between the School District and the teachers' union have jointly agreed to stepped-up mediation, a development that both sides described as an effort to reach some conclusion -- but not a sign that they are at an impasse.
The high-stakes negotiations have been going on since last spring with no public sign of progress. The contract expired Aug. 31, more than four months ago. Talks were scheduled for every day this week.
Facing a shortfall of more than $300 million for this school year, the District made some $250 million in cuts to an already austere budget last spring. The District sought to make ends meet and restore those cuts by getting $180 million in additional funds from the city and state and more than $130 million through labor concessions, most from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
So far, the amount of money it has been able to secure through additional city and state revenue has added up to only $112 million, while the union negotiations have dragged on. As a result, the District has been operating schools in September with barebones staffing and severely pared-back programming.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that starting Monday, Bill Gross, the director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mediation, will join the contract talks on a daily basis. Members of the bureau had been participating in the talks all along, Gallard said, but not at this level.
The increased mediation is not the same as arbitration. Once a formal impasse is declared, an arbitrator can be called in. Both sides are then bound by the arbitrator's ruling. These talks have not reached that point yet.
Gallard, while playing down the development, also offered it as a sign that something was happening.
When PFT president Jerry Jordan was asked for comment, he said that a "media blackout" had been imposed -- which is different from his past responses to general questions about progress in the talks.
Gallard said he was not aware of a media blackout and reiterated the District's stance that the PFT could alleviate the personnel shortages by agreeing to the deep concessions that the SRC and state are demanding. Pay cuts proposed by the District reportedly range from 5 to 13 percent.
"Our position is that this is a sign that we are very much aware that we need to get these negotiations settled as quickly as possible," Gallard said. "We are running out of time; the academic year is going by quickly. If we are going to be able to put significant resources back into schools, we have to do it now."
The financially strapped District is asking the union to agree to the triple-whammy of salary cuts, benefit reductions, and major work-rule changes, including moderations in seniority privileges. Most PFT members don't pay anything toward their health premiums, although Jordan said months ago that he was willing to consider benefit changes along those lines that others have said would save some $20 million.
"We don’t want the school year to continue to move forward without putting back resources [into the schools]," Gallard said. The District can do that with savings generated "if individuals will pay for a percentage of the cost of health coverage."
Generally, when districts seek game-changing contract revisions around work rules, benefits, and other entrenched practices, they offer salary hikes to sweeten the deal. Instead, the School Reform Commission, city and state have taken the position that in this time of "austerity" the PFT needs to participate in shared sacrifice and that the union contract should be treated as another funding source.