Finally, PFT and District reach a tentative contract agreement

The ratification vote is set for Monday night.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philly teachers may finally be getting a raise.

After a five-year stalemate, the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers announced Friday that they’ve reached a tentative agreement on a new contract.

Neither side published details of the proposed agreement, except to say that it would run through August 2020.

For the deal to become final, two things would need to happen. First, PFT membership must vote to ratify the agreement in a general meeting, which is planned for Monday at the Liacouras Center at Temple University; doors open at 4 p.m. If the pact is ratified, a majority of the five members of the School Reform Commission would have to vote to approve it.

“My top priority this school year has been to get a contract with the PFT that recognizes the hard work of teachers and school staff. I am excited to announce we have a tentative agreement that accomplishes that goal,” said Superintendent William Hite in a statement. “Teachers and school staff are at the heart of our work to create great schools close to where children live. They have supported students through the District’s difficult financial times and they are crucial to the progress we are making in schools across the city.”

SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement: “The teachers have gone long enough without a contract, and this contract is one that benefits our teachers, our students and the entire School District of Philadelphia.”

Sources with knowledge of the terms indicated that the three-year pact does deal with the problem of money that teachers have lost over the last four years, as well as including raises and bonuses going into the future. One person described it as “generous.” For the duration of the stalemate, teachers got no raises for accruing experience and obtaining additional degrees.

That means that a teacher with five years of experience was working for the same amount of pay as a first- or second-year teacher.

Hite said the District still believes the deal is a responsible one that will help Philly’s public schools avoid the fiscal calamities that plagued it at the beginning of the decade.

“It has to be the type of fiscal structure that doesn’t put us back where we were several years ago,” he said. “That’s how we negotiated throughout this whole process.”

The Caucus of Working Educators, a group within the union that challenged the PFT leadership last fall, had planned meetings on Tuesday when it looked like a tentative agreement would be ready by then. The PFT is holding a webinar for its members on Saturday. to discuss the terms. WE is urging its members to organize before school, breakfast or lunch meetings on Monday to make sure people are informed before they vote.

On its website, the group has said that the members should have a week to study the contract before voting. “Rushing this process risks its success,” according to one post. It has also called for more transparency and public discussion around the negotiations and the process.

If they sign a new contract, PFT members would receive raises for the first time in years. The District, meanwhile, could claim a major victory on its road back to stability and could market itself as a more attractive destination for potential employees.

Councilwoman Helen Gym, a strong PFT ally, said the agreement “signals the long-awaited start of a new chapter of respect and improved relations for public education in our city.”

Council President Darrell Clarke called it “a fair contract that shows respect for the professionalism and dedication of PFT members.”

“I’m hopeful for the new contract,” Gym said. “We can’t create good schools unless we value the teachers and uphold the type of working conditions that dictate the learning conditions our children are educated in.”

Her statement lauded teachers for working without raises for so long.

“To our PFT members: I know that no words can sufficiently thank you for the sacrifices you have made for our students and schools over the past four years. I understand that there is no easy fix to restore the morale and trust that has been weakened during unprecedented attacks on public education during your tenure. I stand with you. I look forward to opening the next chapter of renewed investment into our schools as we build a public education system that works for all of us.”

The absence of a teachers’ contract dominated District discourse for years, casting a cloud over Philadelphia’s public school system even as its finances and management recovered from years of dysfunction. Teachers routinely threatened to leave their posts for more lucrative positions in the suburbs or leave their profession altogether if the two sides couldn’t reach a resolution.

If that cloud dissipates with the signing of a new deal, attention will turn to the District’s finances.

Philadelphia school officials project a deficit starting in fiscal year 2019 that would grow to $700 million by fiscal year 2022 without more money from the city or state. Those projections factor in a new teachers’ contract, but it’s unknown whether the cost of the deal reached Friday is larger or smaller than the placeholder deal that District officials used when making their estimates.

Advocates, administrators, and teachers will also be eager to know whether the contract contains significantly different work rules than the prior version. District officials have long pressed for more hiring and firing flexibility, less reliance on seniority in teacher placement, and a compensation system at least in part based on performance. Union representatives typically oppose those efforts.

The PFT has more than 11,000 members, including teachers, nurses, counselors, and secretaries.

The five-year deadlock between the District and the union over contract terms was exacerbated by an unprecedented fiscal crisis and a unique governance structure. Alone in the state, the Philadelphia School District has no power to raise its own revenue, depending instead on the city and state governments for almost all its funds.

Citing the District’s fiscal and academic condition, the state took it over in 2001, abolishing the Board of Education and creating the five-member School Reform Commission. That legislation stripped PFT members of the right to strike and theoretically gave the SRC “special powers” to deal with the District’s fiscal crisis.

In 2013, the contract was extended for a year, but after that, the lack of an agreement resulted in a “status quo” contract in which salaries were frozen pending a new pact.

Most teachers have worked without any raises for four years.

The PFT and the District, regardless of the superintendent or governance structure, have never had a functional relationship. The two sides historically have disagreed about almost everything – on what basis teachers should be paid, whether new money should be invested in higher salaries or in hiring more teachers, how teachers should be assigned to schools.

Then that tenuous situation was thrown into chaos in 2011 when Republican Gov. Tom Corbett effectively cut $1 billion in state and federal education aid to school districts, with the brunt of the cuts, about $250 million, falling on Philadelphia.

During this austerity period, other unions, including blue collar workers and the bargaining unit representing principals, took pay cuts, acceding to the District’s demand that everyone contribute to the “shared sacrifice” to help the District weather the crisis.

But the PFT – known for marathon strikes in the 1970s and early 1980s – held firm. It was a Pyrrhic victory: While avoiding pay cuts, teachers went without raises they had earned under the terms of the expired pact. Those savings are what largely allowed the District to end the last two years with small fund balances instead of deficits, although huge shortages are forecast starting in fiscal 2019 with or without big bumps in teacher salaries.

The District-union relationship soured further when, after a year of fruitless talks, in October 2014, the SRC attempted to take unilateral action using special powers given to it as part of the state takeover of the District. It canceled the contract and tried to require payments into health care – most members do not contribute toward their premiums – saying that it would invest the $44 million saved into restoring some positions it had cut, including counselors and nurses.

That action was taken at an unusual Monday morning meeting that was barely advertised in advance and caused outrage. The PFT immediately sued, and the courts sided with the union and against the SRC. It was more than a year before counselors and nurses were rehired and placed back in the schools – another Pyrrhic victory.

During the deadlock, the union also successfully pursued other lawsuits against the SRC. For instance, when the District hired back most of the counselors, it did not follow the contract by placing them in schools according to seniority, instead mostly assigning them back to the schools they had left. Through that and other court rulings, it became clear that the state courts had decided that the state legislation creating the SRC was too vague and had given the body virtually nothing by way of special powers.

For most of the last four years, negotiations were held only sporadically. Some sources said that the PFT was holding out for the election of new leadership at the city and state. In November 2014, Corbett lost to Democrat Tom Wolf, who in his first year did propose an ambitious tax overhaul that would have increased education spending significantly, making up for much of the money lost under Corbett.

But his plans to raise new revenue went nowhere in the Republican legislature. While education spending has increased substantially under Wolf, the District is still not back where it was before the 2012 cuts.

In 2015, Jim Kenney was elected mayor, replacing Michael Nutter, who had not been close with the PFT, had presided over school closings and had endorsed the “portfolio” model of schools that resulted in the expansion of mostly non-union charters. But Kenney had not been able to wave a magic wand either and produce the kind of money for a new contract that met the PFT demands.

As for the relationship with Harrisburg, the Republican legislature made it clear that it would not cough up more money give to Philadelphia teachers, whose salaries continued to slip compared to those in most suburban districts. Its priorities were to expand charter schools while holding in check the huge chunk of state education aid sent to Philadelphia.

In explaining why this has gone on so long, one District source said: “We didn’t have the finances, and they wouldn’t come down” from their demands.

The longer the deadlock, the more expensive a solution became as the union wanted their members to receive some back pay for the money they had lost. Last fall, it became public that the District had made an offer worth more than $100 million over five years, but the union rejected it as insufficient because it didn’t include retroactive compensation and built-in cost-of-living increases. It would have bumped teachers up one step, but did not restore them to the steps they had earned based on years of experience and education level.

At the start of the talks, the District wanted to totally revamp teacher compensation and abolish the automatic increases for accruing additional degrees and experience. District leaders talked about devising performance criteria instead to determine raises, but ultimately relented on that.

Once the sides came reasonably close on the financial package, the last holdup was over how to distribute the money – giving most of the raises up front, or waiting until nearer to the end of the contract. Frontloading means larger raises earlier and adds to the total cost; saving the biggest increments for later saves some money.

Money was the dominant but not the only issue – the use of seniority in teacher assignment has been a long bone of contention and apparently was an issue in these negotiations.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the District won any “site selection,” giving principals and school teams the right to fill some vacancies regardless of seniority. When site selection started, 75 percent of each school’s faculty had to vote in favor.

Before site selection, teachers largely chose where they worked, a system that many school reformers said made it hard to build school teams of like-minded educators.

The PFT was given ammunition for its position at the 11th hour of negotiations. On June 8, Commonwealth Court ruled that the District violated the contract after rehiring counselors that had been laid off, saying that the placement process in schools should have been based on seniority.