January 15 — 4:16 pm, 2020

Opinion: CB team has fought for teachers, students

"The CB Team has what it takes to guide us through the rebuilding process. They have worked tirelessly to move a progressive agenda forward and build us toward the education system that we all envision."

Keith Pretlow

Keith Pretlow and his aunt Rhonda Hicks, building representative at McKinley Elementary School.

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will choose their officers in an election next month. Members will vote by mail between Feb. 6 and Feb. 25. The Caucus of Working Educators (WE) is challenging the longtime leadership of the Collective Bargaining (CB) Team.

Growing up in North Philadelphia, I could never walk far with my Aunt Rhonda without her being stopped by one of her adoring students. They would call, “Miss Hicks!” and always greet her the same way: with a big grin and a huge hug. And it still happens today – her presence as a community leader has only solidified over the years.

I used to grumble to my siblings and cousins when Aunt Rhonda would get stopped by students. Honestly, as a kid I felt a little irritated because we couldn’t ever get anywhere quickly. It wasn’t until later that I realized that for Aunt Rhonda, her influence goes so much wider than our immediate family. Her students, her community, her union – they’re all family.

Read a commentary supporting the WE caucus here.

Aunt Rhonda instilled important values in me as I was growing up. From her, I learned just how noble a career teaching is and just how important it is to give back to one’s community. When I came into the District after serving in the Army and then teaching in a nonunion school, it was with her support and wisdom that I was able to navigate the application process and those first challenging couple of years. So when she told me how important our union is, and why she supports the CB Team, I knew her advice came from years of experience. I listened, and at the same time, I also researched the issues on my own so I could make an informed decision.

As I began teaching at Ben Franklin High School, our building was preparing for what would be a very challenging transition as we readied ourselves to welcome a new school community (Science Leadership Academy) into our building and undergo a major physical transformation. Throughout that process, there were two people I turned to time and again for advice: my Aunt Rhonda and my staff representative, Wendy Coleman. And never once did either of them let me down. My building has been well represented. Never once did CB Team leadership allow for the District to remain unaccountable for any of the facilities conditions we experienced. In fact, it was CB Team’s leadership, in partnership with our school-based advocacy, that resulted in our ultimate relocation and the development of a strong plan to move our construction project forward. But make no mistake: Before the media attention, CB was there, working behind the scenes to make sure we had the support we needed in our school.

Sometimes others say that the CB Team has “too much” experience. This is an odd concept to me, because the CB Team I have seen is a strong balance of those who recently left the classroom and those who have the longtime institutional knowledge. I have seen firsthand collaboration between my staff representative, the environmental team, and Jerry Jordan. The energy they bring to the work is unparalleled, and their expertise is simply unmatched.

My Aunt Rhonda, herself a building rep at McKinley Elementary and a 30-year veteran of the School District, often tells me that the District did not become underfunded overnight and that the problems we are currently facing did not develop overnight. But every step of the way, our union, under CB’s leadership, has stood strong in the face of adversity and has navigated extremely turbulent waters. Though I only worked during the tail end of the SRC’s existence, I know how trying those times were, and I know how much rebuilding is left to be done now that we have a local Board of Education in place. I also know that it was under CB’s leadership that the PFT organized to make sure that the previous governor, Republican Tom Corbett, who cut $1 billion from public education, was the only one-term governor in modern Pennsylvania history. They mobilized for progressive candidates like Mayor Kenney, City Council member Helen Gym, and State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler – whose resounding victories have led to significant political shifts in our city.

Personally, I believe that the CB Team has what it takes to guide us through the rebuilding process. They have worked tirelessly to move a progressive agenda forward and build us toward the education system that we all envision for our young people. For example, at a time when class-size limits were unheard of in collective bargaining agreements, the CB Team won some of the lowest class-size requirements in the nation (a provision that remains today). At a time when the District wanted to refuse access to water fountains in schools (1970, and as recently as 2012), the union organized and won. At a time when health-care costs are skyrocketing nationally, our co-pays have not increased in decades and our coverage remains among the best in the nation. These wins don’t always happen in the media, and they don’t always happen in splashy ways. But the CB Team has, time and again, put in the work to facilitate the conditions I need to do the job I love.

My Aunt Rhonda is blood, but my union is family, too. And my family has shown up for me and for my students time and again. The CB Team shows up. They get the work done. And they show up the next day and the day after that. Family means the world to me, and I truly believe that the CB Team is the union leadership – the union family – that the PFT needs.

Keith Pretlow is a Career and Technical Education teacher and the PFT building representative at Benjamin Franklin High School.

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