The School Reform Commission approved a two-year, $34 million contract to outsource substitute teaching on Thursday, a move that District officials said would result in more learning time for thousands of students a day.
The SRC vote was unanimous, despite concerns about contracting out District jobs raised by City Council – which is holding back $25 million in city funding in part over this issue – and vehement opposition from the teachers' union.
Now, there are about 1,300 substitute teachers who are members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Still, on any given day, 407 classrooms go without a substitute, according to Naomi Wyatt, the District's head of human resources. That is an average of nearly two per school. The absence of a sub can throw a school into turmoil, as teachers must give up preparation periods and other free time to staff the classroom.
"Reduced staffing in the central office limits our ability to manage and assign subs," Wyatt told the SRC. "It's a continuing challenge for us."
She said that the average "fill rate" for substitutes is 55 to 65 percent each day. The vendor hired to provide the service, Cherry Hill-based Source4Teachers, promised a 75 percent fill rate by September and 90 percent by January.
Wyatt said she expected the firm, which works in Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and elsewhere, to hire large numbers of current District subs, many of whom are retired teachers. But these retired teachers are not automatically able to work; state law requires districts to use them only as a last resort because they are also collecting pensions.
Wyatt said that one advantage of outsourcing the service is that the private company can use the retirees; the state law is not an obstacle because they are not being employed directly by the School District.
Wyatt said that the firm will also be able to give incentives and bonuses for going into hard-to-staff schools where subs now decline placement. The District is prevented from doing that now under the PFT contract, she said.
After the vote, the PFT immediately denounced the action, calling it "disrespectful" and "unnecessary."
"Our District has access to a wealth of retirees who are certified, familiar with our schools, and willing to work as substitutes," said a statement from PFT president Jerry Jordan. "Instead of using this resource, Dr. Hite and his administration have instead allowed vacancies to go unfilled in order to save money. They, then, used the shortage of substitutes as an excuse to abdicate their responsibilities to provide services to students."
He said the union is considering legal action around this and may file an unfair labor practice.
Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools said after the meeting that outsourcing will reduce quality.
"Anytime you give up control of professional services, you lose control of accountability," she told reporters."There has be to be some other solution."
Among the districts with contracts with Source4Teachers is Bridgeport, Conn. In an interview, the principal at Bassick High School there, Linda Bagoly, said that the company vastly improved the return rate for teachers and that the teachers have a high level of professionalism.
"When we have 12 teachers out, we're getting them all filled," she said. "The fill rate is high. I would highly recommend them."
The company issued a statement saying it was "eager to begin working toward our desired goal of at least a 90 percent fill rate – a goal we routinely accomplish with similar partners. This partnership will put qualified teachers in Philadelphia students’ classrooms, expand and create new opportunities for substitutes, and provide the District with a solution to a significant problem."
Although none of the 20 speakers spoke against the resolution on the substitutes, several school nurses, as well as others, vehemently opposed the District's recent action seeking private bids to provide health services in schools. Officials say they want to expand services, not replace certified school nurses. But they sought proposals that would cost no more than what they now pay for the 183 unionized nurses.
Nurse service has been severely diminished in recent years due to budget cuts, and many nurses now split their time among several schools. Many schools have a nurse just one or two days a week.
School nurse Michele Purloff told the SRC that the way to improve health services in schools is to restore the 100 nurses who were eliminated and improve the student-nurse ratio, not to seek private providers.
"Outsourcing school nurses puts students' lives at risk," said Helen Glinski, also a veteran school nurse. She and others described the multitude of roles that a school nurse fills, including serving on teams that evaluate and keep up with special education students and monitoring students with chronic health problems like diabetes.
The District said it had received six bids, but hadn't yet evaluated how many are viable.
At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Bill Green said that the District has never said it wants to eliminate school nurses.
"I can tell the people who came to speak are caring professionals who have had to take on a larger workload as a result of budget cuts," he said. "But I want to make clear that no one, to my knowledge, has suggested we want to remove certified school nurses from schools or that not having certified school nurses is acceptable."
In other action, the SRC approved the agreements with five new charter schools that it had green-lighted in February: Independence Charter School West; KIPP DuBois Charter School; Mastery Charter School – Gillespie Campus; Mathematics, Science & Technology Community Charter; and TECH Freire Charter. It also renewed several others.
The vote on the new agreements was 4-1. Commission Chair Marjorie Neff voted against the new charters, as she did in February.
In all, the SRC acted on more than 100 resolutions in the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, moving expeditiously through its agenda by voting on many items in a block.
NewsWorks reporter Laura Benshoff and Notebook intern Greg Windle also contributed to this article.