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Philly teachers: District windfall should mean new contract

Dedicating all of the city money to a PFT contract would leave "no money for educational investments for children," a district spokesman said.

The Philadelphia School District stands to receive $65 million annually in new money, thanks to the city's reassessment of commercial properties.

District teachers, who have gone without a contract for almost four years and without a raise for almost five, think they know just how to use that revenue stream: Give them a new deal.

Backed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, educators are tweeting, emailing, and calling Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and the School Reform Commission, demanding that the district put its money where its mouth is.

"Everybody says, 'If we had more money, we would love to give you a contract,' " said Kathie Tomczuk, a 14-year veteran teacher at Farrell Elementary School in the Northeast. "Now, they have more money. Did they mean what they said?"

Tomczuk tweeted at Hite, the SRC, and Mayor Kenney on Monday to get her point across.

The PFT rejected the district's last contract proposal — a deal the district said would cost about $150 million. The union countered with a deal that would cost the school system $400 million more than it had offered.

Each side has called the other's offer a nonstarter. Because there is no contract, teachers' pay has been frozen at 2012 levels.

Jerry Jordan, the PFT president, was emphatic in an interview.

"I think that the entire $65 million [annually] needs to go help fund a PFT contract,"  said Jordan. "It isn't enough to fund the entire contract, but it should help us get closer to settling,"

District officials last week said they would use the new money to help plug a projected $900 million budget deficit in its five-year plan.

Lee Whack, a district spokesman, suggested it would be unwise to dedicate all of the new city money to a contract, and took issue with Jordan's suggestion that $475 million - five years of city revenue, plus the district's $150 million offer - wasn't enough money for teachers.

"These new revenues must be spent in a way that balances our education priorities," Whack said Tuesday in a statement, adding that those priorities included more classroom resources, fair contracts for all unions, hiring more teachers, sprucing up buildings, and plugging the deficit.

Dedicating all of the city money to a PFT contract would leave "no money for educational investments for children," Whack said.

Darrell L. Clarke, the City Council President, indicated in a statement that a contract was a priority, sooner rather than later.

"The School District's structural deficit is a long-running concern, but making it the first priority over classrooms and students is not how our schools make progress," Clarke said. "District teachers and staff step to the plate every school day because that is what their profession demands. They deserve a fair contract and a raise, and not just because of the District's improving economic outlook – but because the future of our public schools and our City is one and the same."

Teacher Kelsey Green is crossing her fingers.

She's in her fourth year of teaching but is frozen at a starting teacher's salary. With no raise in that time and $800 monthly in student-loan payments, she is unable to move out of her parents' house.

"I have so much debt, and I still have to save for retirement," said Green. "My friends who are teaching in the suburbs make $20,000 more than I do. I can't move forward in my life at all."

Green, the daughter of a Philadelphia teacher, doesn't want to leave the district, but she has applied to other districts. She can't afford the alternative — especially when new teachers hired by the district are paid for their years of experience and advanced degrees, but her pay is frozen.

"We get emails saying, 'Thanks for all you do,' " Green said. "Well, how about a contract?"

Bryan Steinberg got tired of waiting. He submitted his letter of resignation Monday. He's leaving the district not for another school system, but for work as a server and bartender. With that job, plus some marketing work for his parents' business, he'll earn more money.

He loves connecting with students as a high school social studies teacher at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in the Northeast, but working with no contract has worn on him, causing a "constant state of financial anxiety and distress," Steinberg said.

"I never thought I would become a rich man teaching high school, but I also never thought that I would be a near-destitute peasant eight years later," Steinberg wrote in his resignation letter. "The money owed and promised to me five years ago is over $20,000 under our collective bargaining agreement, but I will not sacrifice my dignity to an employer that is slowly and methodically starving its teachers into attrition."

Steinberg is paid as a fourth-year teacher with a bachelor's degree, $54,365, vs. the $67,778 he would be making by now if the district hadn't frozen him at his 2012 pay.

Contract talks are ongoing, the two sides said.

Jordan said that he met Monday with Gov. Wolf and asked him to intervene to help get a deal inked.

Through a spokesman, Wolf confirmed that he met with Jordan. The governor "has planned for some time to reach out to Superintendent Hite as well," said J.J. Abbott, Wolf's spokesman. "The governor strongly believes that both sides should find a way to come to an agreement that is fair to teachers, students, families and the district."

Mayor Kenney, through spokeswoman Deana Gamble, said he would reach out to both sides this week "to get a sit-down scheduled."

"The mayor believes that it is critical for all sides to come to the table now to reach a fair contract that acknowledges the sacrifices our teachers have made, while at the same time recognizes the significant deficit and urgent needs our schools currently face," Gamble said.