Hite suspending seniority for September, seeking approval from Supreme Court
By Dale Mezzacappa on Mar 24, 2014 04:18 PM
Updated | 6:20 p.m.
With labor negotiations stalled, Superintendent William Hite said Monday that he intends to impose a system for assigning teachers to schools next year that eliminates seniority as the deciding factor and instead gives principals the power to fill all vacancies and assemble staff.
“It is our intention to implement a range of work-rule reforms, and these include teacher assignment and transfer, layoff and recall, staffing levels, leveling, and the use of prep time,” Hite said in an interview.
The District filed a 60-page motion asking the state Supreme Court to issue a "declaratory judgment" to affirm its legal right to make such changes unilaterally.
Come September, “all openings ... will be filled through the site selection process,” Hite said. Now, only about half of open positions are filled that way, Hite said.
The District also wants to contract out substitute teaching services.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan vowed to fight the District's court action and called Hite's move a decision to "forsake negotiating in good faith in favor of a legal end-around to avoid meaningful contract talks."
He called the District's legal move "a bogus effort by the [School Reform Commission] to avoid its legal obligation to bargain in good faith over all these issues."
"The members of the PFT are partners in public education, not indentured servants," he said in a statement. "Today's action by the School District belittles every PFT member, and signals an unwillingness to reach a fair contract with the city's educators."
Hite's proposed rules will also give principals “flexibility” to use teachers’ daily 45-minute preparation period for professional development or instructional activities, meaning group discussions of student performance data, teaching methods, and other matters. Currently, principals have no control over individual teacher-prep periods, but some buy "extra" preps for the purpose of teacher meetings and collaborations.
Along with the proposal to cut salaries and end automatic “step” increases for years of service and advanced degrees, the seniority issue is a major sticking point in the 14 months of negotiations with the PFT.
In its five-year financial plan, the District counts on $133 million in annual labor savings, growing to $160 million. A contract ratified last week with the union representing principals and other administrators will save a tiny portion of that -- a total of about $20 million spread over five years.
Historically, the PFT has protected a teacher placement process in which seniority largely governs the right of teachers to choose the schools in which they work. Union leaders regard this as an important right and the fairest way to assign teachers in what they consider to be a politicized system rife with favoritism.
But Hite called seniority “the rule of law” that impedes the District from “matching the skills and abilities of adults with the needs of children and the school communities.” He said it is important to impose these rules now, because “we’re beginning to staff for the next school year.”
Under the contract that expired in August, more than 130 "high-needs" schools automatically fill vacancies through site selection. The rest must vote each year to become or remain a “site selection” school. This year, 33 of 85 schools did, according to the District's Human Resources Department.
HR officials said that the actual percentage of vacancies filled by the site section process has fluctuated year to year. For 2013-14, 578 of 1,426 vacancies were filled through site selection, or 41 percent. For 2012-13, the number was 605 of 923 total vacancies, or 66 percent. The year before that, 675 of 1606 vacancies were site selected, or 42 percent.
During downsizing, as happened last year and this year, when thousands were laid off, the seniority rules squeeze out many promising young teachers, Hite said – in some cases, pushing out those who want to be at a certain school and replacing them with people downsized from other positions who don't really want to be there.
Hite described a graduation he attended in June in which students honored a young chemistry teacher, only to be told by the principal that the teacher would be one of those laid off, because “he hasn’t been here long enough."
Hite said most schools that use site-selection assemble leadership teams of teachers, and often parents, to interview candidates for open positions. Although the final decison is with the principal, "We want the site selection process at all schools to be one that involves a committee of teachers and even parents," he said.
Last September, Hite also suspended seniority rules for the purposes of calling back teachers who had been laid off during the so-called "leveling" process in October, when teacher allotments are adjusted to match actual student enrollment. The union filed grievances challenging that decision; none of the grievances have been adjudicated.
New School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green has made it clear that he is prepared to impose terms on the union, which he says the state takeover law gives him the power to do. However, that power has not been legally tested.
In a District-issued statement, Green supported Hite's decision and said that "these needed reforms merit additional support from the state and city governments."
Hite said going directly to the state Supreme Court to get clarification of the SRC’s power was necessary to settle the issue quickly.
The state law that amended the school code to authorize a takeover of the District says that the SRC is not obligated to collectively bargain most issues beyond salary and benefits.
Given that provision, the petition asks the court to state definitively whether the District has the right to impose new terms after a contract has expired. Teachers have been working without a contract since August.
“We do want some confirmation that we, in fact, can take this action,” Hite said. “This is about making our schools better, getting people in front of children who can actually help students get to different outcomes.”
In summer 2012, former SRC chairman Pedro Ramos went to Harrisburg on an ill-fated trip trying to convince legislators to amend the school code to take away any ambiguity about the District's powers to impose terms on its unions.
Under the current teacher placement system, site selection takes place during a window lasting a month to six weeks in the spring, after school budgets have been set and principals get their staff allotments. The goal is for the process to happen while school is still in session, so that committees of parents and teachers can participate in the selection process.
Under the rules, teachers who are “forced transfers,” as a result of downsizing at their school or for other reasons, apply for available positions, followed by “voluntary transfers,” or teachers seeking new placements for whatever reason. The last to be placed are new hires.
PFT president Jerry Jordan has frequently said that site selection, which was first introduced in 2004, has not solved one major issue that it was meant to address -- getting stable, more experienced teachers in the neediest schools. Some schools do not get enough people who apply for the site-selected positions, so openings are filled centrally in any case, he said.