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As teachers' contract expiration looms, legislators urge state to release $45 million

In letter excluisvely obtained by the Daily News, legislators tell education secretary that PFT, city and SRC have “continued efforts”to open schools Sept. 9

AS THE CLOCK winds down to midnight tonight - when the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' contract officially expires - a sense of urgency has prompted a group of Democratic state legislators to take action.

State Sens. Vincent Hughes, Anthony Hardy Williams, Shirley Kitchen and state Rep. Cherelle L. Parker have written a letter, obtained by the Daily News, urging the state's acting education secretary, Carolyn Dumaresq, to release a $45 million grant, saying the PFT, as well as the city and the School Reform Commission, have "continued their efforts to ensure that our schools open on Sept. 9 with the best possible environment in place for all of our students."

The legislators pointed to Mayor Nutter's $50 million loan commitment and other solutions on which the mayor and City Council President Darrell Clarke have been working.

Schools have been closed or reconfigured, the letter, dated yesterday, reads, "and while negotiations continue, the PFT has publicly stated that they are willing to accept a pay freeze and begin contributing toward their health-care costs to get the schools open on time.

"This is in addition to the $30 million loan and other contract concessions the PFT gave last year to help the district through its continuing fiscal crisis."

Officials on both sides have been negotiating for a new contract since January, while the district tries to narrow a $304 million deficit that prompted layoffs of 3,859 employees in June. The district is seeking $103 million in concessions from the teachers' union, which saw 2,446 of its members cut in the layoffs to help fill in the deficit gap.

PFT spokesman George Jackson declined comment last night, only saying "negotiations are still ongoing."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said yesterday, "We're still at the table and we are hopeful that we can get an agreement before the expiration of the contract."

Gallard said district officials are hopeful that they'll reach a settlement with the union today.

"We're looking at all options," he said. When pressed for details on what those options were, however, he said he did not know.

The district has lost 25 percent of its full-time teacher workforce, according to district documents obtained by the Daily News. On June 30, 10,060 full-time teachers were employed by the district, compared to 8,188 employed as of Aug. 20. In addition, the number of part-time teachers jumped from 540 in June to 575 as of Aug. 20, according to the information provided by the district.

The fiscal code that was part of the school-funding package passed in Harrisburg in early July had a condition written into it: The $45 million onetime grant referenced in the legislators' letter is contingent upon the secretary of education's determination of whether the district has begun "implementation of reforms that provide for fiscal stability, educational improvement and operational control."

But parents and education advocates say the schools need much more to open this year than the city's $50 million and the state's onetime $45 million grant.

Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan group, said more money is needed to get back to school staffing levels of "at least 2011-2012."

"[There's] this myth that money doesn't matter, but the reality is, good education programs cost money," Gobreski said. "We're spending the least that we can get away with spending instead of spending what it costs for a decent, basic, sufficient education to graduate a kid from high school."