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PFT contract now in force; SRC says it could mean layoffs or tax hikes

On the day the SRC approved a contract that will cost $395 million over five years, the superintendent said the district would no longer try to hire 113 new teachers to end split classes and halt leveling in the lower grades.

File: SRC Commissioner Bill Green.
File: SRC Commissioner Bill Green.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia School District and its teachers' union have a new contract, with the School Reform Commission signing off on the pact Tuesday.

But the vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Bill Green labeling the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers deal as "unaffordable and irresponsible," warning that it could mean either 3,800 teacher layoffs or 17 percent property-tax hikes for city residents.

The cost of the pact balloons the district's projected deficit, which had been about $700 million, to almost $1 billion over five years.

The contract, which runs through August 2020, will cost $202 million over three years and $395 million through 2022.

Green said that teachers, who worked four years without a new contract, deserved a raise, but that it came at far too high a price.

"It is not paid for, and there is no commitment to pay for it," said Green. "The city administration intervened in these negotiations and proposed a number to both sides that we cannot afford."

The school system projects a deficit beginning next year, but that is not new.  With the PFT contract tacked on, its fiscal gap rises to $979 million. Green pressed Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and chief financial officer Uri Monson on the dollar commitments the district has received from the city and state to cover that gap.

The state has not offered to help; in fact, Republican leaders have expressed disbelief that the district would agree to a contract it cannot now afford. City leaders have cheered the deal.

"They recognize the fact that we have a major fiscal issue," Monson said of Mayor Kenney and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke. "We've been talking about it with them even before the contract, and they're committed to working with us, with the state, and any other possible partners to find a solution to the deficit."

But Monson and Hite said that has not translated to a dollar figure.

Green was skeptical.

"I don't believe that these monies will show up from the city or state," he said.

Commissioner Farah Jimenez voted for the contract, but called the district's five-year outlook "apocalyptic" and said it was up to local lawmakers to help pay for the "magnums of champagne that we pop today."

The district should not look to Harrisburg to foot the bill, Jimenez said.

"The bill will come due to me and you," Jimenez said — to Philadelphia taxpayers.

Commissioner Christopher McGinley said the contract would ensure a stable workforce for the district and strong neighborhoods for the city.

"Approving the contract is the most responsible action we can take today," said McGinley. "It is in the best interest of our children and the best interest of the city."

Both McGinley, a former superintendent, and Commissioner Estelle Richman, a longtime public servant who oversaw large municipal budgets, said it was rare for any municipal entity to know exactly where all the money would come from over the life of a contract when a deal was struck.

"We're not at this time planning for any layoffs or any negative impacts," Richman said.

Hite said that the contract achieved an important goal: "to reach a fair contract that recognizes and rewards teachers for their contributions, but does so in a way that appreciates the district's financial limits."

City officials have said they will push Harrisburg to devote more resources to city schools, but to say that will be a tough sell is an understatement.

Lauren Hitt, the mayor's spokeswoman, pointed out that charter-school growth is a top driver of Philadelphia school costs, which are growing faster than revenues.

"It is Statehouse Republicans who not only continue to push for charter growth, but who also instructed that the SRC couldn't consider financial implications when considering charter applications," Hitt said.

Green after the meeting questioned the legality of the deal, saying the contract was void because it fails to require teachers to work a school day whose length is equal to the state average – seven hours, 30 minutes, as required by state law. The current city school day is seven hours, four minutes.

The new contract forms a committee to examine the issue of school day length and orders that if changes are necessary, they would be put in place in 2019.

Kevin Geary, a School District spokesman, said the deal meets the public school code.

Deborah Willig, a lawyer for the PFT, said that "the parties recognize that there may be an issue, and that's why they determined to create the committee to study this."

But, she said, if there is an issue with the deal, a severability clause written into the contract means that "it would only void that provision of the contract, not the entire contract."

Financial fallout from the new contract began even before the ink dried on the deal.

Hite, at the SRC meeting, said that the district was walking back a promise to hire 113 new teachers to eliminate split classes and to halt leveling – the process of shifting teachers around to address enrollment shifts – in the lower grades.

The district had promised it would hire 66 teachers to address split classes and 47 teachers to work on leveling. That process is academically disruptive; schools where enrollment is lower than projected now lose teachers in October.

"In order to make this contract work financially, we had to make a few tough choices," Hite said. "These are decisions we do not take lightly, but these decisions will save the district over $45 million over the life of the contract."

Hite said the district would work to try to address split classes and leveling in the future.