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A heartbreaking act of staggering cowardice

There's only one thing worse than the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's early morning assault on unionized teachers -- and that's the underhanded way they did it, in a fog of near secrecy, with a determination to squelch public debate. A saga of remarkable political cowardice.

See this picture? This is what raw cowardice and utter contempt for democracy looks like.

The picture was taken Monday morning and posted on Twitter by Kevin McCorry of WHYY's Newsworks just before 9:30 a.m., at the Philadelphia School District headquarters building at 440 North Broad Street.

In a matter of seconds -- in a meeting that would last all of 17 minutes, and with one hasty comment from the public -- the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the state agency that has presided over 14 years of ruination of public education here, is about to explode a political bombshell. The SRC is about to revoke its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and cut the teachers' benefits -- and it's about to do it before this nearly empty room.

This is no accident. The lack of a crowd, and the lack of public debate, was an act of careful calculation. The calculation of cowards.

Forget the ABCs -- if you want to look at what's behind this Day of Infamy for public education in Philadelphia, look no farther than the 3 Ps: Policy, procedure, and, of course...politics.

1) Policy. Yes, yes, of course, it could have been worse. Remember last year, when the SRC proposed massive pay cuts and even yanking water fountains out of the classroom, as its opening gambit? Of course, that was a ploy so they could instead come back this morning with their "reasonable" package of no pay cuts (whoo-hooo...?) and requiring PFT union members to pay a portion of their health insurance. (How much? Early numbers suggest family coverage will cost from $71 to $200 a month out of the teacher's pay.) SRC and district officials claim they'll pump the estimated $44 million in savings right back into the classroom...we'll see about that.

As a fellow union member who was just asked a few years ago to pay toward my own health insurance, to help save a struggling operation, part of me wants to look at the policy angle and shrug: Hey, it happens. Even the leaders of the PFT have acknowledged that -- to help Philadelphia's school kids survive this crisis that was NOT OF THE TEACHERS' MAKING -- some concessions would be necessary. But the only outcome that would have made any real sense was for this to happen cooperatively, at the bargaining table, and the SRC has rarely displayed any enthusiasm for that.

Lost in the spin is the fact that health benefits for retired teachers -- dental, vision, prescription drugs -- were also disappeared by the SRC this morning. That's some lesson that American society teaches today's schoolchildren: Work hard all your life and someday we'll break the promises we made you, because we can. Yet the school district didn't break its promises to Wall Street when it lost hundreds of millions of dollars in lousy investments on "interest rate swaps," did it? What about the "staggering" salaries that still go to some of Superintendent Hite's top lieutenants? Why is it always the working men and women who get screwed in these deals, and the retirees even more?

More to the point, if this is such a sound policy, why not give it a full airing in public?....which brings us to:

2) The procedure! Although we all suspected and feared that the SRC was capable of this, few thought they would actually try this ploy. But they did. Monday morning's meeting was not listed yesterday on the SRC website, and no notice was sent out to the media until early Monday morning, about two hours before the vote was actually held. So how was it even legal? The SRC quietly bought and buried this legal notice in the Classifieds section of Sunday's Inquirer:

The notice -- which, in an understatement, was barely seen by anyone -- doesn't state the reason for the meeting beyond "general purposes." What's more, it says that, sure, members of the public absolutely have a right to speak -- as long as they call the SRC and register by 4:30 that afternoon. Was anyone even there to answer the phone on a Sunday? We'll probably never know. The first notice of this in any media was posted Sunday night by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook at 10:43 p.m. last night, or six hours and 13 minutes (about the length of a baseball playoff game*) after the cutoff for speakers.

There's an old saying that if you want to do something but you'd be embarrassed to tell your mom or dad about it, then...don't do it. How bad are your actions when you're too embarrassed to tell 1.5 million Philadelphians about it? I'd say, pretty bad -- and that makes one wonder, how much of this is really about "the kids" and how much of this is old-fashioned...

3) Politics. The contract stalemate between the SRC and the PFT has been going on for 21 months, so why take this vote in such a rash and arrogant fashion on this particular morning, October 6, 2014? Could it be because it's exactly 29 days before Pennsylvania votes on whether to keep Gov. Corbett -- who appointed the majority on the five-member SRC -- or ditch him for Democrat Tom Wolf.

Do you remember that it was just last year that a Republican firm took a secret poll and used the report to urge Gov. Corbett that there was only one way that the foundering, unpopular governor could restore his image on education issues: To confront the Philadelphia teachers union. Now, with Corbett in the political fight of his life and losing badly, the school commission led by the governor's appointees is starting a fight with the Philadelphia teachers' union.

What a remarkable coincidence!

Look, I know what you're thinking -- Corbett is getting clobbered so badly in the polls that what does it matter at this point. I agree -- but why do NFL teams keep lobbing Hail Mary passes when they're losing by five touchdowns? Maybe Corbett figures a tough stance will appeal to suburban voters (although most of them are too freaked out by their own sky-high property taxes to notice). Maybe he's desperate for the chaos of a teacher's strike, which would violate a 1992 state law. Here's a prominent Philadelphia Republican (yes, that's a thing, apparently) who came out practically minutes after the SRC vote saying that a) he hates (yes, hates) the union but b) pleads with them to strike. Another coincidence? A strike (which I seriously doubt will happen -- look for this to be fought in court) would be devastating to tens of thousands of schoolchildren. But, hey, politics ain't beanbag.

But even if you're a Corbett supporter, and even if you think those "pampered" teachers need to be taken down a few notches, you still should be outraged at the massive one-fingered salute that the SRC just gave to the notion of democracy and public discourse, and to the people of Philadelphia. In Hong Kong this month, tens of thousands of people took to the streets because their dear leaders won't allow them to nominate their own candidates to lead local government. But how is what the SRC just did in the fog today any better? This almost-secret, barely legal meeting was a heartbreaking act of staggering cowardice. Every one of them -- SRC Chairman Bill Green (whose grandfather, a post-New Deal Democrat, surely would not have been pleased by this), and members Feather Houstoun, Farah Jimenez, Marjorie Neff, and Sylvia Simms -- is a gutless coward. They should be ashamed of what they've done.

* Slight sarcasm on the baseball.

Note: Corrected from first version to reflect there was one comment.