Where displaced teachers will land is uncertain
Although the contract offers a “right to follow” students, the reality is more complicated.
by Connie Langland
These are days stretching into weeks of uncertainty for hundreds of teachers in the 44 schools slated to be shuttered or relocated under the Facilities Master Plan before the School Reform Commission.
Will their school be closed?
Will they be laid off?
Where will they land?
In recent community forums, Superintendent William Hite stressed that the plan called for “teachers to follow their students” to their new schools. And he estimated that only 37 teachers – a projection based on one teacher per school slated to be closed – ultimately would face layoffs.
“The number of teachers impacted [by layoffs] will be minimal,” he said. With hundreds of new teachers hired each year, he said that any who might be laid off could be optimistic about being reabsorbed somewhere in the system by the start of school in September.
But the District has not shared the analysis behind its projections. And Hite’s remarks came prior to the District’s announcement in January of plans to transfer 2,000 Head Start students out of District-run centers and into community-based sites. This cost-cutting move will impact dozens of certified teachers because many Head Start teachers are also certified to teach elementary school.
“I can’t answer how many teachers will be impacted, and I don’t know how they can either,” said Arlene Kempin, general vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “And now we have those early childhood center closings that are being added to the mix.”
Last year, the District targeted nine schools for closing and ultimately closed six. This year, 37 are slated for closure, with seven more to be relocated. This is on top of about 10 Head Start centers in sites leased by the District that are expected to be shuttered.
“When it affects you, it’s traumatic,” said Kempin. “So many teachers put their lives into their school. They’re part of the fabric of the community, they’ve taught the parents of the kids they’re teaching now. It’s wrenching.”
Until 2011, the District routinely hired 900 to 1,000 teachers per year. That number dropped dramatically starting in 2011-12, the first year of severe budget cutbacks. And some teachers were laid off last year, although most were hired back as the District ultimately brought on about 350 new teachers last fall.
Principals in the schools slated for closure have been alerted by letter that “they may not be employed,” said their union chief, Robert McGrogan.
But, he said, because principals have some “bumping” rights, it was an error to notify the principals in the 37 schools that they were the ones in jeopardy. Because of the reduction-in-force rules, if any principals are laid off, it would likely be ones who are still in their two- or three-year probationary period
“I don’t know if the attrition rate is going to match the job loss rate,” said McGrogan.
Until retirements, resignations, and promotions are all taken into account, many principals’ futures are in limbo just at a time when the District says it needs to invest in quality leadership.
It all adds up to massive uncertainty and upheaval.
Plus, the principals are being put in the unenviable position of “being asked to advocate for their students while starting the process of closing down the school and protecting its physical assets,” McGrogan said.
“How do they do right by their students and still be obedient to the District?” he asked. The District, he said, is “putting my members in the crosshairs.”
For newer teachers, the question is whether they’ll be laid off … again. And the odds are not as favorable as a few years ago, when veteran teachers retired in droves. Now, according to the union, about 55 percent of the 10,000-teacher workforce has five years or less experience. Under the contract, layoffs generally are based on seniority – last hired, first fired.
Teachers in affected schools are taking action.
“It’s hard, feeling every year that your job is on the line,” said A.J. Schiera, social studies teacher, whose students – he teaches an urban education class – have become eloquent advocates for their school, University City High, at several school closing forums. He said he and other teachers are taking a “hunkered-down, get-through-the-year” attitude while hoping for the best.
Kristi Taylor, computer teacher at Fairhill School, a K-8 school in North Philadelphia, said she and other teachers have opted to lobby hard to keep the school open, with letter-writing, a phone bank, leafleting in the neighborhood and other activities. “Some people feel it’s hopeless but I sort of see it as a win-win. We will have done everything we possibly could, we will have done our best,” she said.