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Philly teachers offered contract deal worth $100M

After months of no progress, talks between the Philadelphia School District and its largest union have inched forward, with the school system putting an offer worth about $100 million on the table this month.

After months of no progress, talks between the Philadelphia School District and its largest union have inched forward, with the school system putting an offer worth about $100 million on the table this month.

The deal would include restoration of "step" increases, or pay bumps for years of experience. It would also include incentive bonuses over the life of the four-year pact for teachers in hard-to-staff schools, and it would give raises to teachers now at the top of the pay scale, according to sources familiar with the talks.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan confirmed the outlines of the offer, but said he would not take it to his members.

Under the proposed deal, teachers would get no retroactive pay for the years they have gone without raises or step increases, and they would receive no cost-of-living increases.

"This offer has no recognition of the years that people have sacrificed," Jordan said. "They have saved millions on the backs of our educators."

Teachers have been working without a contract for three years and without raises for four. The school system, citing financial emergency, tried to cancel the contract in 2014, a move later nullified by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the deal put significant money on the table, but still acknowledged the district's fiscal situation.

"If we had more money, we'd be offering more money," Hite said in an interview. "Anything that we do has to be within our financial reality."

Though it is in better shape than it has been in years, the district still projects a $500 million deficit by 2021 even before paying a penny extra to the PFT. School systems - particularly large, poor ones - worry about what President-elect Donald Trump's administration will mean for them, given his vocal support of charter schools and vouchers.

And the state and the city, which provide the vast majority of the Philadelphia school system's funding, have made it clear that they will not increase aid.

"The district has been told repeatedly that there is no additional money to bridge the gap for the PFT," one source said.

The district's offer, made in early November, included step raises of about 5 to 8 percent that would take effect Jan. 1, Jordan said. But if a teacher were on step 1 - the lowest level of experience - when his or her pay was frozen, the teacher would move to step 2, not step 4.

The proposal would also give 2.5 percent raises to educators at the top of the pay scale in January, then a 1 percent increase in September and .5 percent increases in 2018 and 2019.

It would not include increases for teachers earning masters' degrees or additional credits, the union president said. Most districts offer such increases, though some research suggests that teachers' advanced degrees do not guarantee better student outcomes.

Hite said that restoring pay for advanced degrees could be on the table in the future, but that his priority at the moment was restoring steps.

The bonuses offered would help staff schools that now struggle to attract teachers.

But Jordan said the $32 million the district would lay out for the bonuses over the life of the contract would be better spent paying teachers incentives for advanced degrees. He said he rejected the bonus offer outright.

The deal on the table would also require teachers to begin contributing toward their health-care costs. They do not currently pay toward those premiums. When talks began years ago, the PFT said it was willing to consider sharing health-care costs.

But the total salary picture was unacceptable, Jordan said.

"It's unrealistic, particularly for those who have stayed in the district when they could have chosen to go elsewhere," Jordan said. "This doesn't offer any incentive for teachers to stay in the city of Philadelphia. It really is disappointing and shows that they don't really care about the teachers."

Hite strongly disputed that characterization.

"We want to get a contract as well," he said. "Teachers have gone too long without one. Goodness knows we would love to recognize all of the time they've missed, but we were also dealing with some pretty significant financial challenges."

The two sides also disagree on proposed work-rule changes.

The district's proposal would codify a practice in place since the district imposed it several years ago. All future teacher vacancies would be filled by "site selection" rather than seniority, giving principals and school communities the power to hire candidates based on fit rather than be forced to accept them based just on experience.

Jordan called that proposal "very disrespectful to members." Now, principals can remove teachers from buildings not for performance, but for "compelling reasons," a practice he said sometimes results in unfair treatment.

Hite said that universal site selection has generated real improvements in schools and that it would be better to put processes in place to deal with potential unfair treatment than to scrap the system.

The PFT has made a counterproposal to the district's offer, but Jordan would not detail it.

A district source with knowledge of the talks called the union's counteroffer "fiscally irresponsible and completely unworkable."

Though the two sides remain far apart, Jordan said he was holding out hope.

"As long as we're talking," he said, "there's a possibility of making progress."

A state mediator remains involved in the contract talks, officials said. Richard Lazer, Mayor Kenney's deputy for labor, is also working with the two sides.