AFTER MONTHS of threats, Bill Green officially declared war on Philadelphia public school teachers.
In a bold but unsurprising move, the School Reform Commission, chaired by Green, voted yesterday to unilaterally cancel the teachers union contract and impose health-care-benefits changes - during a hastily called 9:30 a.m. meeting - sparking outrage from union leaders, elected officials and education activists.
District officials said the benefits changes will save about $44 million this year and $200 million over the next four years, which will be redirected to schools for key resources, such as counselors and nurses.
There is no change, however, to wages or other economic provisions for the estimated 15,000 teachers, nurses, counselors, secretaries and other Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members.
The benefits changes, while major for union members, will not significantly impact students. State law prohibits the PFT from striking. Both the district and the union said they are prepared for the matter to play out in the courts.
"When you collectively bargain it takes two parties," an incensed Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said during an afternoon news conference. "It takes giving some and taking some. What the district has done is they have said, 'We want it all,' and that is unacceptable and we will not agree to it."
In conjunction with the vote, the SRC and the district filed a complaint in Commonwealth Court, essentially seeking validation to impose the terms. They claim Act 46, which enabled the state takeover and established the SRC, gives it special powers, including imposing contract terms during a stalemate. Jordan said the PFT will respond.
The district and the PFT have been negotiating since January 2013 without a resolution. Green had said previously that the SRC would take action if the union did not agree to significant concessions.
"Since I've been in this office, I've been saying that we needed everybody to share in the sacrifice," Green said after abruptly adjourning yesterday's meeting. "We have a structural deficit that, for the first time, we had an opportunity to close by taking this action so that we will get additional resources into schools this year that are going to be meaningful to teachers in classrooms."
Hite said he supported the decision because schools have been underresourced for too long. "It cannot be the new status quo that we exist without these critically important classroom resources."
Under the terms approved by the SRC yesterday, changes take effect Dec. 15. PFT members who make less than $25,000 a year will contribute 5 percent of medical plan premiums; those who earn between $25,000 and $55,000 will contribute 10 percent of the premiums; and those who earn more than $55,000 will contribute 13 percent. It will eliminate the Health and Welfare Fund, which the PFT controls.
Additionally, employees who enroll their spouse or domestic partner in a district medical plan when they are eligible for coverage through their employer will contribute $70 per paycheck. Opt-out payments will also be eliminated for those who decline coverage. It is unclear how the changes would impact retirees, Jordan said.
Gov. Corbett, who has pushed for PFT concessions, and Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq said the changes will benefit students.
"Philadelphia is one of only two districts across the commonwealth that pays zero toward health care," Corbett said in a statement. "It is now time that members of the PFT join the thousands of public school employees across the state who already contribute to their health care costs."
This is the second time this year the SRC has tried to impose terms on the PFT. In March, the SRC announced changes to seniority for teacher assignments and sought backing from the state Supreme Court, but the court declined to weigh in. Despite that, the district has continued operating under the imposed terms.
Yesterday several members of the Philadelphia delegation in Harrisburg blasted officials for taking aim at teachers. Dozens of activists protested outside Corbett's Center City office. Some parents also opposed the move.
"They are cutting money from the only people that are actually there to educate our kids, which makes no sense to me," said Tamara Arroyo, who has two children at Vare-Washington School in South Philadelphia. "I think it's ridiculous, honestly."
- Staff writer Regina Medina contributed to this report