by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks
For Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite, it's a classic managerial quandary.
Either grab some quick savings that could free up money for services that the city's schoolchildren could really use.
Or hold off on that deal in hopes of securing the long-term structural changes that you bet will strengthen the system overall.
The short-term money would come if the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers agreed to pay into their health-care coverage.
The School District says that these concessions would generate "tens of millions" of dollars that could return "significant resources" to District schools with the stroke of a pen.
In a city that's seen severe budget cuts eviscerate traditional public school services and staff, Hite confirms that these savings would return additional guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, and support systems to students who have starved for them through five months of what's been called a "doomsday" school year.
The PFT's contract with the District expired Aug. 31. Shortly before then, PFT president Jerry Jordan said the union would be willing to take a pay freeze and make health-care concessions, the size of which he wouldn't define.
In a recent interview, Jordan said that if the contract hinged solely on health-care concessions, "I think that we would probably be able to settle very quickly."
Hite's eyes are on the long term
But months have passed, with talks still in the "we're at the table," "negotiations are ongoing," "there's nothing to report" mode. This says a lot about Hite's priorities.
He's willing to take a pass on money in the "here and now" that would return badly needed services to students in order to keep leverage for the long-term structural changes he thinks will improve the academic quality of District schools.
"We're negotiating a contract, not portions of things," he said.
Chiefly, Hite wants a PFT contract that would give the District more of the managerial flexibility enjoyed by the city's public charter schools – most of which employ a non-unionized workforce.
With these changes in work rules, the District could lengthen the school day and school year, and assign, pay, transfer and lay off teachers based on factors other than seniority.
"We're trying to get to a place where we have the ability to compete," Hite said in a recent interview, "and that ability to compete is ... to a large degree based on work rules that must change so that we can get certain individuals into certain buildings."
The District has also asked the PFT to agree to scaled pay cuts from 5 to 13 percent on the way to realizing $103 million in annual savings.
Citing ongoing negotiations, the District will not reveal the exact make-up of its work-rule requests. An early draft of the District's contract proposals was leaked last year. The District's official word on the negotiations is as follows:
"We believe that a comprehensive resolution that includes economic concessions and work rule changes is critical for the short- and long-term benefit of our public schools. ... The District has to look past just the remainder of this year to next year and beyond."
Some have criticized the PFT for not agreeing to concessions more readily.
At a televised press conference in August, Mayor Nutter said of the teachers' union: "These are essentially the only adults at the table who so far have yet to financially contribute to a solution for this crisis. ... It is time for the PFT to step up."
The Corbett administration is in lock step with Hite on the importance of securing work-rule changes above and beyond these savings.
"If you're going to have a vibrant public school system going forward in Philadelphia, you not only need to generate these savings, but you've got to be able to operate the system in the schools in a way that's actually going to deliver quality," said State Budget Secretary Charles Zogby.
"I think the superintendent quite rightly sees the work-rule changes as an essential component of that," he said.
To PFT president Jordan, the entire work-rule debate is a red herring that distracts from what he believes is the root of the District's problems: inadequate funding.
"We're willing to make some sacrifices in order to get through this very difficult time that the District is having, but the employees didn't create it," he said, "and the employees should not be viewed as a sustainable funding formula for the School District of Philadelphia."