Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia school superintendent defends teacher contract proposal

William R. Hite Jr. wants you to know: He does not want to drive teachers out of the Philadelphia School District.

William R. Hite Jr. wants you to know: He does not want to drive teachers out of the Philadelphia School District.

The superintendent says he doesn't want to take away their water fountains, desks, or privileges to leave the building during their lunch periods. He's not after students' books and he doesn't want to increase class sizes.

"We believe teachers are professionals, just like architects, lawyers, doctors," Hite said Thursday in an interview. "We want a contract that reflects that. I truly believe that in order for teachers to be effective, there needs to be some flexibility, and we need to treat them as professionals."

Hite said he wanted to try to reframe the public's understanding of the district's initial contract proposal to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which The Inquirer detailed this week. The contract covering 10,000 teachers and 5,000 secretaries, nurses, counselors, and other support staff expires in August.

The district's proposal calls for a 13 percent pay cut for those making more than $55,000 a year, and an end to seniority-based positions and to a guarantee of an adequate supply of textbooks, among other provisions.

It infuriated teachers and PFT leaders, who said it seemed that the district was trying to penalize and drive out veteran educators. Many said they felt disrespected.

Hite said that was the opposite of the district's intention.

"First and foremost, I'm an educator," he said, citing his record as a classroom teacher and principal. "We have a great deal of respect for what teachers do each and every day. We think that teachers are key to our strategy of improving educational outcomes for all of our students."

He said he would not negotiate in public and declined to go into details of the financial terms of the proposal beyond emphasizing the district's dire fiscal situation. It recently had to borrow $300 million just to pay bills through the end of the school year, and could close 29 schools in June.

"We're really trying to save this district," Hite said.

The proposal - which the PFT has not countered and which figures to change considerably between now and August - asks for salary reductions and benefits givebacks of 13 percent for those making $55,000 and above, but would also increase teachers' workday to eight hours. (They currently work a seven-hour, four-minute day.)

That's just a recognition of what most teachers are already doing, Hite said.

"Many of our teachers work beyond eight hours - they work on weekends, they work nights, and they work on holidays. We value that. This is not a longer school day. This is more time to plan and collaborate," he said.

For teachers now to advance, Hite said, they must move out of the classroom; he wants the new contract to help them progress in their careers while remaining there, if they choose. "Distinguished" teachers should be paid accordingly, their classrooms used as models, and their experience used to help new and struggling teachers.

"We want more support for teachers," Hite said.

As for provisions that call for an end to mandated water fountains, private rooms for nurses and counselors, and an adequate textbook supply, the superintendent said, "There is a difference in eliminating a provision and eliminating the thing that is being provided."

When he was a teacher, his contract didn't call for him to have chalk and a chalkboard, he said. But his district still had a responsibility to provide them, though that wasn't spelled out.

"Many of those things are listed in our contract," he said, pointing to a bound copy he keeps in his desk. "In terms of a professional contract, they have no business being there. Those are kind of ridiculous. In order for us to provide a high-quality education, naturally we have to provide those things."

What he wants, Hite said, is a "more modern document that speaks to the type of things that we think are really important, like growth and evaluation and development and teachers being part of the conversation."

PFT president Jerry Jordan, who said he strongly believed the proposed contract does not professionalize teachers but demeans them, said those provisions were not outdated.

"For too many years, we have heard from the administration that if it's not in the contract, then they do not have to do it," Jordan said. "There has not been the good will on the part of too many administrations. The only reason things like that are in the contract is because they've been a problem."

Hite said flexibility was key.

He said removing a class-size maximum - a current proposal - would help with things like concurrent high school and college courses and "blended learning" opportunities. With the current cap of 33 students, if 10 students at five district high schools wanted to take an Advanced Placement class, that would be difficult to achieve, he said.

"Many colleges will have more students in lecture and fewer students in labs," Hite said. "We want to take dual enrollment to scale."

Hite said he also wanted the contract to free teachers from some onerous administrative tasks and to make sure the right teachers are in front of the right students.

And he said that he understood what eliminating seniority and giving more authority to principals would mean, and that teachers were worried because the quality of administrators is uneven.

"We completely get that," Hite said. "It's one of the reasons why we really need to work on our leadership. We're going to have to really focus there, really build a pipeline of leaders."