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Teachers' union endorses Kenney for mayor

In a mayoral race centered mostly on education, James F. Kenney is about to take a huge leap forward - he has won the coveted endorsement of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

James F. Kenney has helped schools, union leader Jerry Jordan said. (Stephanie Aarson / Staff Photographer)
James F. Kenney has helped schools, union leader Jerry Jordan said. (Stephanie Aarson / Staff Photographer)Read more

In a mayoral race centered mostly on education, James F. Kenney is about to take a huge leap forward - he has won the coveted endorsement of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The Kenney backing will be formally announced Monday, union president Jerry Jordan confirmed.

Kenney "has a record of accomplishments; his experience on Council helped him," Jordan said. "He's supported issues that make the city a better place. And without fanfare, Jim has been involved in doing things for schools."

The union's 12,000 members, not PFT leadership, decided who would get the endorsement, and teachers and other school staffers "overwhelmingly" chose Kenney, Jordan said.

Kenney said he was "humbled" to have Philadelphia teachers' support.

"Our city's educators are on the front lines every day, working tirelessly to ensure our children are getting the education they need despite continuing cuts," he said in a statement. "As mayor, I will fight to get teachers the funding they need and the respect they deserve. We must empower our teachers to be pillars of their community if we want to create a city where every child and every neighborhood has a shot at success."

The PFT's support is certainly a boost for Kenney. But the Democratic field remains crowded, and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams is still viewed by many as the favorite, in part because of funding and race, and the primary is still two months away.

The lone Republican candidate in an overwhelmingly Democratic city is Melissa Murray Bailey.

While the six Democratic candidates speak in generalities about the importance of strong public schools, here are some key differences in their stances:

Williams is seen as the pro-charter school candidate and has the backing - and the financing - of the deep-pocketed founders of the trading firm Susquehanna International Group, who have said they plan to spend significantly to propel Williams forward.

(The teachers' union is likely to spend heavily, too, as it did in the November race that got Gov. Wolf elected and in the Chicago mayoral primary that forced a surprise runoff election.)

Williams, who founded a charter school now run by the Mastery network, supports expansion of strong charter schools, he has said, but also wants more oversight of the city's 82 current ones.

The other candidates are more cautious on charter schools, at least as long as the district remains in financial crisis. Kenney, Nelson Diaz, Doug Oliver, and Lynne Abraham (who chairs the board of a group that runs a charter school in Reading) all urged a moratorium on new charters before the SRC's February vote to authorize five.

T. Milton Street has said he opposes further expansion of charter schools.

The School Reform Commission's future is also on candidates' minds. Some want the district returned to local control and the SRC abolished in favor of a city school board, though the only way to achieve dissolution is by vote of the SRC.

Before the SRC's establishment, school board members were appointed by the mayor, which would give whoever is elected enormous clout over the district's operations. But even an elected local school board would hand the city's chief executive much more power.

Diaz has been vocal on this issue, calling for dissolution of the SRC and immediate return to local control. He wants an appointed board made up of district parents and more mayoral control over city schools.

Kenney, Williams, and Abraham all say they want to get rid of the SRC, but not until state funding stabilizes. Street is also pro-local control, with certain funding conditions from Harrisburg.

Oliver wants the SRC to remain, but to shift its balance from three gubernatorial picks and two mayoral to three mayoral, two gubernatorial.

Abraham, who says teachers' having to buy their own supplies to keep schools going is a "public shame," said "teachers' contracts must be respected," an apparent reference to the SRC's move last fall to attempt to cancel the PFT contract. She suggests exploring an increase in the use and occupancy tax, which goes to the schools, and advocates overhauling the tax system altogether.

Diaz also espouses "fundamental tax reform," wants commercial property taxes and nonprofits to generate more money for schools, supports a state shale-drilling tax to benefit districts, and opposes the SRC's contract-imposition move.

Kenney, like the PFT, is high on community schools - buildings that house not just educational facilities but also other community resources, such as health and social services offices - and made their development part of his platform. He wants a focus on expanding high school career and technical education programs, and expansion of prekindergarten and early-education programs. He also promises that as mayor, he would be directly accessible to schools through monthly sit-downs with principals.

Kenney also disapproved of the SRC's canceling the PFT contract - the savings the commission hoped to achieve "does limited good if at the same time we deter dedicated, motivated teachers by balancing the budget entirely on their backs," he has said.

Oliver wants to better fund schools by considering sales of city assets, requiring nonprofits to make payments in lieu of taxes, extending some bars' hours, and contemplating reduction or elimination of tax abatements.

He also favors closing more schools, shuttering buildings "operating below capacity" and "facilities with significant, deferred maintenance." He said he would fight "vigorously" to remove the small minority of underperforming teachers from city classrooms.

Williams wants to raise $200 million by shifting more property taxes to the school system, reinstating some state charter school reimbursement costs, and pressing the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership for $50 million. He also wants to step up collection of delinquent taxes and leverage city assets.

Street said he would propose changing the Philadelphia schools conversation in Harrisburg, which he said now amounts to "Philadelphia schools are full of hoodlums that don't want to learn." He would support a tighter discipline policy to help change state lawmakers' minds.

Bailey, the Republican, is particularly concerned about strengthening schools to keep young families in the city, she said - and she plans on sending her young daughter to McCall Elementary, a city public school, in a year. She said that "sweeping reforms" are necessary to strengthen the system and that more important than the form of governance of the district is bolstering community and family involvement in it.

215-854-5146 @newskag