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Hite proposes ending teacher seniority

William R. Hite Jr. knows it's a tough ask: $120 million from a state that historically views Philadelphia and its public schools "as a cesspool."

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)Read more

William R. Hite Jr. knows it's a tough ask: $120 million from a state that historically views Philadelphia and its public schools "as a cesspool."

So, the superintendent figures, the only way the nearly-broke Philadelphia School District is getting the cash it needs from state coffers is to end teacher seniority.

"If we stand any chance to get money from Harrisburg, it's going to have to support something that is different from what we have now," Hite told the Inquirer Editorial Board on Thursday, adding that legislators are unlikely to support a system where "individuals get another increase just because they're remaining on the job another year."

On the table is a budget so bleak that schools would not have counselors, books, or extracurriculars next year. To add even some of those basics back, Hite and the School Reform Commission have requested $304 million - the $120 million from Harrisburg plus $60 million from the city, with the rest in labor concessions.

Mayor Nutter this week proposed giving the district $95 million by taxing cigarettes at $2 per pack and raising the liquor-by-the-drink tax to 15 percent.

But that still leaves a big hole for Harrisburg to fill. And, Hite said, outside the city, "Philadelphia is thought of as a cesspool."

People believe that the district operates inefficiently, wastes money, and "protects individuals that are not serving children," Hite said.

Among legislators, "there's no desire to support the status quo," the superintendent said.

Hite has made no secret of his desire to end seniority in a new Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract - saying the district ought to be valuing "the performance of individuals as it relates to outcomes for students vs. how long they've been in the position." He also takes issue with the last in, first out provision that governs layoffs.

That sounds about right, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for Pennsylvania House Republicans. Still, Hite's publicly tying the breaking of a bedrock principle of unions to more funding surprised him.

"It's stunning and refreshing to hear from a Philadelphia superintendent," Miskin said. "I think we would definitely be willing to sit down and talk to him, and hear his ideas."

Erik Arneson, a Senate Republican spokesman, agreed that a seniority change would help Philadelphia's cause.

"There are numerous members of our caucus who strongly believe that changes like that should take place before additional state funds are committed," Arneson said.

Still, Harrisburg leaders have been clear: $120 million is a huge number - the entire proposed increase in the basic education budget for every school district in the commonwealth was $90 million - and there's no appetite for new taxes.

Hite said he was less optimistic about the state's revenue picture than he was that key legislators in parts of the state outside Philadelphia are at least "beginning to listen. They're not slamming doors. They're actually engaging."

Districts across the state that educate large numbers of poor and minority students are in positions similar to Philadelphia's, Hite acknowledged, which complicates the funding picture.

But, Hite said, Philadelphia has taken steps that no one else has - closing 31 schools over 18 months, with more school closures planned, extracting big concessions from blue-collar workers, and demanding more from teachers.

"I'm trying to draw that distinction, and individuals are listening, and they're trying to help," he said.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan rejected Hite's logic on the seniority issue.

"It's the wrong conversation to have," Jordan said. "I can't imagine anyone in the state legislature thinking that seniority is the magic bullet. The conversation should not be about something that's not going to make a difference."

States that have no teacher seniority, including many in the South, have poorer student performance than many states with strong unions, such as Massachusetts, Jordan pointed out.

Hite was firm, though, that he believes seniority is a roadblock both to improving schools and getting money from Harrisburg.

And in a way, he said, the terrible position the district now finds itself in - "I have the best job with the worst circumstances," he said - represents a chance.

"It gives us an opportunity to reset our work, purpose, and values, and construct something that looks very different going forward," he said.