In a sign of its dire financial straits, the Philadelphia School District said Wednesday that it would withhold a raise its blue-collar workers were to receive this week.
It's not exactly clear how bad the district's fiscal situation is. A budget update is expected Thursday, but sources say the gap still left to be plugged before the end of this school year is now significantly more than the $14 million officials had identified.
Withholding the raise saves the district $1.4 million this school year, but it's not known where more midyear savings might come from. The district last month laid off some school staff, including nurses, and cut schools' already-squeezed budgets by $10 million.
One sure cut is planned salary bumps for members of Local 32BJ, District 1201 - bus aides, cleaners, maintenance workers, building engineers, and others. Their contract calls for a 3 percent salary increase effective Jan. 1. That raise was to be reflected first in checks issued this week.
All 2,700 32BJ members have also received layoff notices effective later this year. The workers are paid between $17,000 and $60,000 annually.
District officials said they are withholding the raise because last fall, union members turned down a contract amendment that included financial concessions.
At the time, many workers said they voted against the concessions because the district had just paid almost $1 million to buy out former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.
Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the district "is engaged in ongoing discussions with 32BJ to help meet the district's gap-closing plan." He said there was an "expectation that we could reach an agreement that among other things restructures the pay for 32BJ members."
Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district's largest union, are also due raises beginning with this week's paycheck. Those raises will go through, Gallard said, because the 17,000-member PFT agreed to other concessions in the form of delayed payments to the union's health and welfare fund. That saved the district almost $60 million.
George Ricchezza, president of 32BJ, who said the district had canceled several recent negotiating sessions, said he only learned about the withheld raise when members began calling him. His calls to district officials seeking clarification were never returned, he said.
"I think this is the inappropriate way the School District handles business," he said.
Ricchezza, who is scheduled to meet with district leaders this month, said he had consulted with union attorneys and was considering possible action.
"A contract's a contract until something happens, until they want to implement Act 46 or take an extraordinary action," Ricchezza said, referring to the state law that created the School Reform Commission and gives it special power to overturn contracts. That power has never been used.
Years ago, the district tried to skip raises that were laid out in a 32BJ contract, Ricchezza said, but ultimately an arbitrator forced the district to pay.
Bill Wilson, a district painter for the last 25 years, said the missed money was an issue, but not the main issue.
"It makes me mad, because we do have a signed contract," said Wilson. "They're not even sitting down to talk to us."
Wilson, like many, fears the district plans to outsource his job to save money. But he thinks officials underestimate what he and others do to support schools.
"I am very passionate about my job," he said. "We deal with asbestos, we deal with lead paint and falling plaster. We come in every day to make it safe for these children, and it just seems like they don't care."
Wilson said he knows the district is in a terrible financial pinch, and he and many other members would give up the raises if the district would listen to ideas union leadership have to save money, he said.
"We're not gullible," said Wilson. "We know how bad it is."
Bus aide Melanie Hobbs was also fuming Thursday.
"They're saying, 'I'm not going to give you the raise, and I'm going to lay you off, too,' " Hobbs said.
Hobbs, a 26-year employee of the district, keeps children safe and occupied on trips to and from school.
"I'd like to know how parents are going to feel about their kids being on buses with no aides," Hobbs said.
Some parents are already raising the issue.
Several sent a letter to Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II and members of the SRC last week. They decried the possible loss of bus monitors and the recent layoffs of some noontime aides who monitor students during lunch and recess.
"These cuts will create situations across the city in which hundreds of students will be supervised by one, or no, adult in areas in which the likelihood of intimidation, bullying, injury, and aggression is the highest," the parents wrote. "We believe these cuts are unsafe, unwise, and an abrogation of the district's responsibility to provide for the safety of our children."