Teachers have done their part to improve schools, Jordan says
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan says he cares about the school district and the plight of public education in Philadelphia — regardless of attempts over the years to paint the union as the major obstacle to school reform.
Jordan — a career educator who graduated from the West Philadelphia High School — took issue with that perception, contending that the union has done its part and sacrificed through a number of give-backs, the most recent coming last fall.
“We have consistently [partnered with the district on cuts] and I would defy anyone from the board who suggests we haven’t been very effective in working with the district to keep health care costs as low as they can possibly be through negotiations,” Jordan said, during a recent editorial board meeting at The Philadelphia Tribune. “That’s a reality that all organizations have to build in; you shouldn’t ask people to work and not have health care.”
Jordan’s referred to the recently publicized Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools, an aggressive plan that calls for $156 million to be shaved from the district’s personnel department, by means of a restructured benefit and pay scale.
“At that time last year, [the SRC] said, ‘this is what we need in order to balance our budget.’ So to come back in December and say, ‘oh, it’s not balanced.’ But you told us this is what [The SRC] needed,” Jordan explained. “There were serious negotiations around this, and they gave numbers and explained to us that this is why they need the unions to make these concessions, and we did. So then in December, we hear ‘well, no, we still have to lay off people because we have a huge deficit’. How can we trust the numbers?”
While Jordan contents that his union recently cut more than $50 million from its operational budget, his problems with the blueprint go much deeper than just what it means for his membership.
“Looking at this plan that the SRC is proposing, it is absolutely silent on restoring to our children, the programs that existed when I was in high school,” Jordan said. “When I went to West, there was a band, orchestra, school newspaper and all the sports … that is missing from the schools. When you look at research of what happens to children during those after-school hours, more kids get into trouble because they are not supervised.
“Those programs were taken out of the schools by the school district administration,” Jordan continued. “I question how is it that we talk about improving schools, and we’re not saying and doing what it is that needs to be done to make schools a much better environment for students.”
The school district has made several cuts to its staff, programming and after-school/weekend hours, in an effort to whittle down the budget for the current academic school year. The district faced a budget deficit of around $69 million; the cuts, although painful, has left the district with a fiscal year 2012 budget gap of little under $30 million. Currently, the SRC forecasts a budget deficit of $218 million — which has the potential to increase to $312 million. Thomas Knudsen, the district’s Chief Recovery Officer, fanned the flames of a coming disaster, warning of a distinct possibility that the district wouldn’t open its school doors in September if the district didn’t receive the $94 million from city council via the controversial Asset Valuation Index; Jordan dismissed it as little more than a threat, saying the commonwealth is obligated to providing free and equal-access education to all Pennsylvanian children.
From Jordan’s perspective, the mismanagement of district finances – either by the current board or previous incarnations – shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of the PFT or of its students; Jordan doesn’t fully dispute that the district is leaking, but believes with a series of tweaks, the district can restore most of the programs it has cut. After all, it has done so in the past.
“I’ve been in the system for a while, and there’s always been a deficit and problem financially,” Jordan said. “But I harken back to the ‘80s, when Connie Clayton assumed a budget deficit of over $200 million at that time, and those programs existed for children,” Jordan said. “Connie Clayton never eliminated one nurse. She said that there weren’t enough nurses for every school, so there was never a layoff. We had libraries, but now we’re down to about 47 librarians for 249 schools, and every school doesn’t have a music and an art teacher.
“The reason I draw that parallel is that we did not have the amount of money during the Clayton era that existed after she left, the amount of money that came in during the Hornbeck era from foundations and others were much greater, and after the state took over and especially during the [Governor Ed] Rendell years, a lot more money went to the public schools.
“So it becomes a question of management; how is the money being managed? Is that money going into the schools for the kids, or is that money being spent elsewhere? That is the issue, and I will say that during the Clayton years, the money went into the schools and it was a real focus on what the kids received as far as a quality education.”
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said SRC members do hear and take to heart the negative vibes and general angst the blueprint has created amongst parents, students and stakeholders. Still, in order to balance not only this year’s budget, but to reorganize in a way that leads to solvency in five years — the estimated time frame for all of the positive effects of the blueprint to be realized — there was simply no way around the cuts, but agrees that more money needs to be circulated back to the classroom.
“The frustration I hear in people’s voice is, ‘How can this be? Is there something else we can do besides restructuring the district and closing schools, besides the hard decisions we have to make? And the answer is no,” Gallard said. “People ask why do we have to close schools, but the answer is pretty straight-forward. We are spending a lot of money on half-empty schools, and we can’t afford to do that.
“We should be realigning money to the classroom.”
Emblematic of the district’s organizational disarray, Jordan contends that neither the district nor members of the SRC bothered to contact the PFT for input on the draft’s blueprint; not only that, Jordan said, but the PFT wasn’t invited to the public release of the blueprint, and so far, the SRC hasn’t extended an invite for a formal sit-down with the union. Jordan personally doesn’t believe the plan will survive, and indeed, Gallard labeled it a draft that can and probably will change, Jordan believes the district missed a golden opportunity to band with the union.
“When the blueprint was introduced, that’s when we became aware of it,” Jordan said, noting that he and his staff were putting together a response and counter-proposal. “There just needs to be a lot more focus on the quality of education being offered to children in the Philadelphia school district.
“This is just a management budget document; it’s a financial plan.”