For the first time in decades, Philadelphia teachers are being asked to sign individual contracts, and that has them in a panic.

And the contracts themselves do not help - they do not contain a salary amount.

Teachers, who are represented by a union and covered by a labor agreement that expires in August, don't know what to make of the paperwork, which comes with a blank spot where a salary should go.

"HELP! What am I to do with the contract that I'm being asked to sign that came in the mail? Can I indicate on it that I am represented by the PFT?" one teacher e-mailed Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"Enclosed is a Professional Employee contract. I ask that you kindly sign and return the document . . . no later than Friday, June 19," reads the letter, signed by Estelle Matthews, Philadelphia School District human resources chief.

Matthews said yesterday that there was no mystery. Pennsylvania school code requires all teachers to have signed individual contracts, she said, and she realized that Philadelphia teachers hadn't had them for 20 years.

The individual contracts don't supplant or supersede the union collective-bargaining agreement, she said.

No one can remember why the district stopped issuing individual teacher contracts, but Matthews said she had been directed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to get the paperwork up to speed. Ackerman, she said, was incredulous when she discovered that contracts were nonexistent.

The union is advising its members not to sign. Matthews said she wasn't sure what the penalty would be for noncompliance.

"I would have to have a conversation with Dr. Ackerman about that," Matthews said.

One thing's for sure, Matthews said. Her phone was ringing nonstop yesterday.

"The intent was never to rouse people up," said Matthews, who is new to the district. "I've been apologizing to people all day."

And those blank salary lines?

"That's because of the time constraint," Matthews said. "We'd have to pull each salary individually. Nobody's losing salary - we're not adding or taking anything away."

Jordan, whose team has begun negotiating a new contract, wasn't taking it lightly.

"On a week when teachers were made not to feel valued, it feels punitive and disrespectful to the teachers," Jordan said. He said he was referring to an Inquirer interview in which Ackerman vowed that teaching standards would be tightened and promised that more teachers would be given unsatisfactory ratings this year.

Teachers, he said, particularly took offense to a section of the letter that said the contract "is another sign of our mutual commitment to building a system of great schools to serve, educate and celebrate all the city's children."

Teachers already are doing just that, he said.

Jordan said union attorneys were looking into the matter. He was particularly troubled that the contract teachers received was dated Sept. 1 - the day after the union's collective-bargaining agreement is to expire.

"I have no idea what their thinking was," Jordan said. "What I do know [is] this is a problem that could have been avoided. Teachers are very angry."

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.