No agreement but ‘progress’ as deadline nears for contract negotiations between Philadelphia teachers and district

Jerry Jordan standing at a podium speaking into microphones.
PFT president Jerry Jordan speaking last year. (Greg Windle/The Notebook)

A two-week extension of talks between the school district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will run out on Monday, with no word on whether the two sides have been able to reach an agreement.

Superintendent William Hite confirmed Thursday that the two sides were still negotiating.

“I’m confident we can get to an agreement,” he said, before amending his statement: “I remain optimistic that we’ll get to an agreement.” 

Union president Jerry Jordan got approval from his members to extend the talks for two weeks when the contract ran out on Aug. 31. Jordan, too, has said that he thinks an agreement can be reached. But he also accused the district of trying to “shake down” teachers by demanding agreement on a school reopening plan before discussing possible wage increases.

PFT spokeswoman Hillary Linardopolous said Friday afternoon:  “We are making progress in ongoing negotiations” and Jordan sent a communication to members.

Philadelphia teachers at one time were the highest paid in the region, but now have fallen considerably behind surrounding suburban districts. The average salary in Philadelphia is $72,500, while in adjacent Lower Merion it is just under $102,000. 

The union is seeking a one-year contract extension with what Jordan called “modest” raises. Those would be in addition to the regular “step” increases that teachers receive for years of experience and advanced degrees. The union’s fiscal experts believed that the district can afford raises, even though district officials are forecasting a funding shortfall of $800 million by 2025. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the district had a balanced budget. It had a fund balance in the 2019-20 fiscal year and chief financial officer Uri Monson also predicted a small fund balance at the end of this fiscal year without needing to make cuts..

But the financial fallout from the pandemic could be severe.

Mayor Jim Kenney sought a small property tax rate increase in May to help the district meet its future expenditures, but the city council did not take up the suggestion. Philadelphia is the only school district in Pennsylvania that does not have the power to raise its own taxes, relying on the city and state governments to provide sufficient revenue. 

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At the time, board of education president Joyce Wilkerson told the council: “The district has moved from a place of financial stability to a looming financial crisis that could be more severe than even what we lived through seven years ago, when the district experienced a $300 million funding cut, which led to drastic layoffs, reduced supports for schools, and significant decreases in school building maintenance and more.” 

Asked on the first day of school about the likelihood of a strike, Jordan said: “It’s always a possibility but not what I view as the first thing to do.” 

Teachers want guarantees that school buildings will be safe when some in-person learning resumes, which could happen as soon as mid-November. In addition to issues around ventilation, many of the district’s buildings have been plagued with flaking asbestos and lead in water and paint.

Negotiations were continuing into the weekend.

The PFT represents 13,000 teachers, nurses, counselors, secretaries, and paraprofessionals who work in the district.  

This is the first contract to be negotiated with the board of education after nearly two decades under the state-dominated school reform commission. During that time, the union was forbidden to strike. The board resumed control of the district in 2018.

The PFT went five years without a contract while the SRC was in control, with no raises at all. That’s one reason why Philadelphia teachers’ average salary has fallen so far behind those in the suburbs. 

Some paraprofessionals, who work in jobs including special education assistants and bilingual counseling assistants, formed a group called ParaPower to advocate for higher wages. Their salaries top out at about $30,000 a year, said organizer Robbin Blake, who added that most are community members with families. The U.S. poverty level for a family of four is set at $26,200.

“Every year, we fall closer and closer to the poverty guidelines,” Blake said.

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