Seniority for public school teachers is in the crosshairs in Philadelphia and soon will be a target across Pennsylvania.
Frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations for a new contract for Philadelphia teachers, a coalition of education and parents' groups says it will call on the School Reform Commission Monday to immediately pull seniority off the bargaining table and give Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. a free hand in assigning staff.
The announcement urging the move, scheduled for midday Monday, is expected to rekindle fierce debate over powers granted to the SRC under the law that led to the state takeover of city schools in 2001.
"If somebody wanted to create a legal atomic bomb, this is it," Ralph J. Teti, the lawyer who represents the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said Sunday.
On Tuesday, a bill is to be introduced in Harrisburg that would strip language from the state school code that requires layoffs and recalls to be determined by seniority.
Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the state group PennCan, which seeks to speed the pace of education improvement, said Sunday both efforts were aimed at bringing reform to "an outdated model," in which the most recent hires are laid off first and brought back last.
Cetel, whose group is heading Monday's call for action from the SRC with the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership and Parent Power, said negotiations with the PFT had been going on for seven months. Those talks, he said "have made little or no progress, and it is time for immediate action to improve public education in Philadelphia."
He also said imposing the seniority changes could help trigger the release of $45 million from the state so Hite can recall more counselors and other staffers laid off in June. The legislature required the district to show it was making changes to get the grant.
Jerry Jordan, president of the 15,000-member PFT, said Sunday he was stunned to learn of the proposal to jettison seniority.
"These are issues that are subject to collective bargaining," he said. "I think it's a very bad thing for them to try to do this after all the years that the system has been in place. It works."
Jordan said "seniority is certainly the fairest way to make a determination when people are restored from layoffs, as well as when they're laid off."
The SRC provoked a firestorm from the PFT and others over the summer when it voted to suspend part of the school code dealing with seniority to give Hite the ability to return some of the 3,859 staffers laid off in June to the schools where they worked.
Pedro Ramos, chairman of the five-member SRC, said Sunday he had not heard about an impending announcement by PennCan and others and did not know what they might say.
"The SRC gets its advice from Dr. Hite, his team, the negotiators at the table, and our labor lawyers," Ramos said.
He would not say what legal advice the SRC had received about its powers under the takeover law.
"We don't discuss legal advice or strategy in public," Ramos said.
Hite could not be reached Sunday.
Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said the coalition believed the law gives the district control over staffing.
He said it was crucial for the SRC to give Hite that authority as the district begins to reassign teachers Oct. 1 to address overcrowded classes, a process known as "leveling."
"In the past, that process was driven by seniority," Gleason said. "Parents and students know seniority is not always the right way to do that. With all these buildings understaffed, it's especially important to have a right fit."
He said a recent city poll by PennCan found that 69 percent of respondents favored assigning teachers based on their performance and school needs, rather than on years of employment.
But Teti, the PFT lawyer, said the union and district had negotiated changes related to seniority in the last three contracts. He said most assignments are not based on seniority because the number of schools using a process that gives principals much more say in the hiring of staff has increased.
"It sounds like somebody wants to undermine the ability of the PFT and the school district to reach an agreement," he said.
"I would hope that the SRC would have better sense than to listen to anyone lobbying for the imposition of anything," Teti said.
He said the PFT would wait to see what the SRC does and then weigh its options. But morally, politically, and legally, Teti said, he thinks the PFT has the upper hand.
Gleason said several parents were scheduled to speak Monday about why they believe the district should scrap seniority.
"This is really about bringing new voices to the table," he said.
One belongs to Luciana Boone of Southwest Philadelphia, whose daughter Tahira Branch-Boone is a 10th grader at Girls High.
"I believe the principals or the superintendent should be able to make the decisions about what is in the best interest of the schools, the students and the neighborhood," she said.
Boone, who cannot attend Monday's event, said longevity does not always mean effective teaching. "There may be some teachers who have 15 to 20 years of experience teaching, but there may be someone with five years who is more adept with students and technology," she said.
As for the proposed state legislation, Cetel said the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act would be introduced Tuesday by State Reps. Tim Krieger (R., Westmoreland) and Vanessa Lowery Brown (D., Phila.)
Cetel said the bill would change state code to allow economic furloughs and require layoffs to be based on results of the teacher evaluation system rather than seniority.
He said the measure also would reform tenure so it is awarded after five years instead of three.