By Mark Gleason,
and Tony Payton Jr.
The roots of the Philadelphia school budget crisis stretch back many years. But less than one month until schools open, the city lacks a viable financial plan for running safe, high-quality schools - because leadership, courage, and creativity are lacking on all sides.
What is needed is innovative thinking, from both district management and the teachers' union. It's time to agree that money is not the only problem facing our schools, and that the path forward requires policy and contract changes. This is especially true since the state has authorized a one-time infusion of $45 million for schools, but made it contingent upon educational, operational, and fiscal reforms. Adding that money to the $50 million the city aims to borrow for schools, and the $28 million it has pledged from improved tax collections, would bring in a meaningful total of $123 million.
First, we need to acknowledge that the district has become a nightmarish place for teachers to work. They suffer the effects of high principal turnover, curriculum changing frequently or not existing at all, training that is divorced from the real challenges of urban teachers, poor communication within the organization, and much more. Supplies are nonexistent. Schools don't even have copy paper in their budgets for this coming year. Many of these issues rightly don't belong in a union contract, but addressing them has to be the first part of getting to a healthy compromise in the current contract talks.
Second, let's stop talking about 13 percent salary cuts for teachers. That's not a reasonable idea. Anyone who has interacted with the School District knows there are still too many layers of bureaucracy there. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. rightly wants to link pay increases to an array of factors besides seniority, but more needs to be done to eliminate nonessential spending before seeking pay cuts from teachers.
Third, we also need to acknowledge that part of the reason for the principal churn is that current "site selection" policies don't give principals enough input into hiring staff. Far too many teachers are assigned to principals through seniority, whether or not their skills are a good fit for a particular school. Ensuring mutual consent - meaning both principal and teacher must agree in all hiring and transfer decisions - while not a silver bullet, is the best way to recruit and keep great leaders, and to ensure that teachers work in jobs where each can have the greatest impact.
Fourth, we must remember that getting even more funds from the state ultimately depends on getting votes from legislators whose districts are far from the Schuylkill. That's going to remain a hard sell as long as Philadelphia teachers are enjoying benefits and work rules that don't match those of teachers in other parts of the state. Philadelphia has one of the shortest official teacher workdays: a half-hour shorter than the state average. It is also one of the few remaining districts in the commonwealth where teachers pay nothing toward the cost of health care. That's a big reason the average Philadelphia teacher's total compensation tops $110,000.
Note that a longer official workday doesn't mean teachers who already work overtime must work harder. It means that teacher schedules will have more overlapping, non-pupil time, allowing for more collaboration and team planning.
Finally, Philadelphia can't come out of this budget crisis without fundamentally giving teachers more voice in decision-making. Teachers feel disenfranchised, and in many ways they are. A broken system cannot be reinvented without the input of those who face the problems on a daily basis.
Students must come first. Administrators, teachers, and politicians must switch from posturing to problem-solving, and use contract talks and tax votes to create a financially sustainable, teacher-centric system of schools.