The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School Reform Commission at least have one thing in common: Both claim to have the best interests of the city’s students in mind. Outside of that commonality, however, the district and its biggest union are barreling toward a contentious showdown as its contract expires in August 2013.
And it hasn’t helped matters that each side points — either directly or indirectly — at the opposing party as a major cause of the current financial malaise in which the school district finds itself. SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos blasted what he feels is the misinformation being fed to community groups — while not directly naming the PFT as funding the misinformation campaign — Ramos did take aim at those who may have done so for monetary or political gain, and said the PFT is responsible for at least one incident.
“There’s been a pretty heavy rotation of radio ads that don’t say they are PFT [-related] or the original [batch] of them were paid for by the PFT,” Ramos said. “And recently, in one incidence, [the PFT link] wasn’t made a secret, after [the flyer] has been in publication for a while. And then there are flyers I have actually encountered at community meetings that misrepresent a lot of facts.
“So a lot of what the community is reacting to is bad information.”
If the PFT is responsible for these flyers, Ramos questioned if they are being produced with membership dues.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan was outraged at the notion his union is running a negative proxy campaign, but instead said the focus needs to be returned to where it belongs — on the district’s endemic mismanagement of resources and funds.
“I don’t know what Ramos is talking about. The members of the federation have only done their jobs every day, and they are not responsible for making the budget or making determinations on how resources are spent,” Jordan said. “It’s the SRC that is responsible for that.
“But we are not happy with the budget, and we know, once again, Philadelphia’s children are being relegated to attending schools that don’t allow them the extensive opportunities to learn that many other children in surrounding school districts have.”
Jordan offered deep background on how the district fumbled away millions, and believe the SRC knew this disaster was coming, yet did little to prevent it.
“In 2001, the state took over the school district, said they were taking it over because the district was academically distressed and financially distressed. They bought in CEO Paul Vallas, and after five years of the state running the district, lo and behold, the formerly ‘distressed’ district was left with a $100 million deficit when Vallas left in 2006,” Jordan explained. “That was under the state’s watch. Even today, the state has control over the School District of Philadelphia, and under its watchful eye, now we have the SRC.
“My members did not run up a $700 million deficit,” Jordan continued. “Under the state’s takeover, Arlene Ackerman was superintendent and the SRC were stewards of the budget.
“It wasn’t the [PFT] members; let’s say who did it — mismanagement by the people who were put there.”
The new school budget is actually the third such plan the district has produced. Earlier this year, SRC Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen released his five-year reorganization plan, followed by last month’s release of the Chief Academic Office’s reorganization plan.
“It’s a budget that eliminates more and more services for our children, particularly the most-needy children,” Jordan said. “The elimination of nurses, the opportunities for children to receive counseling services, the elimination of opportunities to excel in the arts and the elimination of extra-curricular activities that allow children to work in groups and grow leadership skills.
“All are important perks of a child’s education.”
These plans call for district to shave $155 million from the district’s personnel department, via a restructured benefits and wage scale. With labor negotiations looming in 15 months, the acrimony developing between the SRC and PFT could lead to tense bargaining and further mud-slinging.
Jordan declined to comment on the current state of negotiations, but did back the diligence of his membership.
“Don’t scapegoat people who are in the schools when resources are being pulled away from schools,” Jordan said, noting that the average teacher spends about $1,000 of their own money on the most fundamental supplies, such as copy paper, erasers and pencils. “In this era of high-stakes testing and accountability, there’s a concerted effort to starve the schools and then be able to point to the schools themselves as being failures, because the students were not able to live up to the standards set by the state.
“And then, they will close the school.”