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Nutter on SRC move: 'Not city's proudest moment'

When the Philadelphia School Reform Commission moved - with little notice, in a fast, early-morning meeting attended by few members of the public - to unilaterally cancel the teachers' contract, they had the support of Mayor Nutter.

Mayor Michael Nutter. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Mayor Michael Nutter. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read moreAP

When the Philadelphia School Reform Commission moved - with little notice, in a fast, early-morning meeting attended by few members of the public - to unilaterally cancel the teachers' contract, they had the support of Mayor Nutter.

But the mayor, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, made it clear he was not turning cartwheels over the action. A negotiated settlement, he said, is always his preference.

"Look, it's not the proudest moment in the city's history," Nutter said of the SRC's Monday move. "There should be no jumping for joy about what has taken place."

Forcing teachers to pay a portion of their health benefits is not an attack on the profession, he said. He respects them greatly, he said.

The teachers have been working under terms of a contract that expired in August 2013.

The contract cancellation, which is expected to face a court challenge later this week, applies only to health benefits, officials said. The Philadelphia School District expects to save $54 million this fiscal year, and $70 million annually thereafter, money that will be plowed directly into classrooms, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. promised.

Fifteen million of the savings is to be released to schools in the next several weeks. Principals will have discretion to use money as they see fit - for social, counseling, and behavioral support services; for desperately needed materials; for help for struggling readers.

Teachers, most of whom pay nothing toward their health care, will begin paying from 5 to 13 percent of the cost of their premiums.

Pushed on whether he thought the SRC violated the public trust by hastily calling a Monday meeting to take its unprecedented action, Nutter said he would raise the issue with district leaders.

But "I don't know if any of the folks who are upset about this would be happy if the meeting was conducted in the middle of Broad Street at noon," he said.

Ultimately, the mayor said, the SRC did what it had to do. Consider Northeast High School, the city's largest, with more than 3,000 students. Its budget is just $15,000.

That means there is just $5 to spend per student for an entire school year.

"I think the action is indicative of the dire circumstances, the tragedy of what's going on in the classroom," Nutter said. "There's no more money to be had from anywhere."

The district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had engaged in more than 100 bargaining sessions since January 2013, and little progress was made on a new contract.

School officials say the PFT offered health-care concessions that would have yielded about $2 million in savings, a figure the union disputes. The PFT says it offered savings worth more than $20 million.

Nutter underscored the need for an equitable state funding formula for education, a subject he pushed in Harrisburg on Monday. State funding has dropped steeply in the last several years.

But since 2009, the city's share of district funding has increased by more than $357 million. Local funding, once responsible for just 36 percent of the district's overall budget, now makes up 47 percent.

PFT president Jerry Jordan has directed his lawyers to prepare a response to the district's motion for declaratory judgment, filed Monday in Commonwealth Court to affirm the SRC's move. The SRC was joined in its legal action by the state Education Department.

The PFT's legal response is expected in the next few days.

Jordan on Tuesday said PFT staff spent the day in schools, answering members' questions as best it could. He said the district had shared little information with union leaders.

"There are a lot of questions that we have and members have, and we can't answer them right now," Jordan said.

Jordan has said that all job actions are on the table but that he would not decide until he spoke to members via a teleconference town-hall meeting Wednesday.

"My members are very, very concerned," he said. "They feel very disrespected by the SRC's actions."

Some students talked on social-media sites of skipping classes Wednesday to protest the SRC move.

At the same time, city union leaders have lined up behind the PFT.

Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia council of the AFL-CIO, was unequivocal.

"Where I come from, what the SRC did yesterday is a destruction of collective bargaining," Eiding said in a statement. "The labor movement in Philadelphia sees this for what it is, and we're ready to support the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, however they choose to respond to this outrageous decision."