Philadelphia teachers, district reach contract deal, avert strike

Jerry Jordan standing at a podium speaking into microphones.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan. (Darryl Murphy/The Notebook)

Philadelphia’s teachers and the school district have reached a tentative contract agreement that includes a 2% raise and what union president Jerry Jordan calls “one of the most stringent safety plans in the nation” to regulate in-person schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. 

He noted the health and safety plan is not part of the tentative agreement, yet something his team negotiated as a separate memorandum of understanding, or MOU.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, or PFT, has 13,000 members. Jordan announced that those attending a Zoom meeting Wednesday evening had indicated strong approval for the one-year pact. 

The 2% raise is retroactive to August 16. In addition, members will receive their “step” increases, due based on additional experience and advanced degrees, starting on Jan. 4, 2021. “This is a significant win for us,” Jordan said in a press call with reporters, noting that 89% of the members present for Wednesday’s meeting voted in favor of the agreement. Union officials said about half the members were on the call.

He said the pact would cost the district an additional $31 million. “This is not an expensive contract for them,” Jordan said. The overall district budget is more than $3 billion.

The safety plan is in the form of a detailed memo of understanding outlining specific conditions that must be met when teachers and staff return to school buildings, which at this point is slated to happen next month, despite a surge of COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia.

Those conditions cover issues including rules for social distancing, safe building capacity, and the availability of hand sanitizer and masks.

“To be clear, buildings cannot and will not open if it is not safe to do so, period,” Jordan said.

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite will present to the board of education Thursday his plan for reopening school buildings to about 30,000 pre-kindergarten through second grade students on Nov. 30. Teachers and other staff are expected to return on Nov. 9. The board will not vote on the reopening plan at the meeting. 

The MOU contains a dispute resolution system, Jordan said, in which any problems will be solved within days and rely on the mediation of a “renowned” physician who specializes in public health. “This is going to be a very rapid process,” he said. “Our goal is not to have unresolved disputes because this virus is nothing to play with.” 

He said the full text of the MOU would be released publicly before Nov. 9.

Of the proposed timetable for reopening schools for in-person learning, Jordan said he is taking school officials at their word that it can be met.

“I can only tell you what the district has said,” he told reporters. At the same time, he added, “what we have seen so far is that we are not ready.” 

A point of contention for parents and teachers is whether schools, most of which are decades old, can be properly ventilated to standards necessary to stem the spread of the virus. Hite has said that all buildings are being tested for air quality, but the district has yet to release the inspection reports themselves. Its “readiness reopening dashboard” says that 21% of buildings “are fully certified for ventilation.” 

Hite and Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson have said that the district has spent some $70 million on COVID-19-related costs, including signs for social distancing, masks, and sanitizer.

When the union contract expired on Aug. 31, Jordan asked his members for a two-week extension of negotiations. At the time, Hite said he was confident the two sides could reach an accord in that time period. Jordan also expressed optimism — although he accused the district of trying to “shake down” teachers by demanding they sign off on a school reopening plan before discussing possible wage increases. 

Still, the talks dragged on for two months. Jordan said that elected officials, including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, were instrumental in helping the two sides reach an agreement. 

The district “thought they would break us, but it didn’t work,” Jordan said. 

Asked for a response to Jordan’s announcement of a pact, district spokeswoman Monica Lewis said via email Wednesday that “at this time, there will be no comment on the matter.” 

Jordan said the union sought a one-year extension because of the unusual conditions brought on by the pandemic. He said that the union will be seeking a four-year contract after this agreement expires. “Well be back at the table probably in January,” he said. 

The PFT had not gone on strike since a weekend walkout in 2000. Before that, the last strike was in 1981.

During the 17 years that the district operated under the state-dominated School Reform Commission between 2001 and 2018, the PFT was prohibited from striking. During that time, the union went five years without a contract, during which members received no raises or step increases. Once among the highest-paid teachers in the region, city teachers fell behind surrounding districts. Salaries now range from $45,716 to $91,852. 

The PFT’s membership includes secretaries, counselors, and paraprofessionals. There are approximately 8,000 teachers and 125,000 students in the district.

The American Arbitration Association will now send out a mailing to all PFT members for formal approval. That process will conclude on or about Oct. 29, Jordan said.

The district and the union disagreed over whether the district could afford to give teachers a raise. Hite and CFO Monson said that the pandemic had battered its usual state and local revenue sources, and forecast a yearly shortfall of $800 million by 2025. The union noted that the district had received more than $100 million in federal coronavirus aid.

Jordan said that while some parents might feel that teachers don’t deserve raises because they have not been in school buildings, the virtual environment has been a backbreaker for them.

“Our teachers and other employees are working harder this year than they’ve ever worked,” he said. “It requires a different set of skills” that they weren’t trained for. 

He added: “I understand the frustration of parents” who must upend their lives because the children are home. “This is very frustrating for everyone.” 

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