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Chaos is the new normal at the Philadelphia School District.
Students will discover this today (Monday, Sept. 9) on their first day of school. Thousands will be attending new schools because their old ones were closed down in June. Others will notice the absence of familiar faces among the staff because the district has shed 3,000 jobs in recent months. There will be less support staff, fewer counselors and nurses. Some classes will be more crowded. Services they received before will no longer be available.
My feeling is they will do fine in adapting. Children always do. I am more worried about the adults, who are still fighting over what to do next.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, faced with demands for wage and benefit cuts and work-rule changes, is bogged down in negotiations over a new contract with district management, led by Superintendent William Hite. The old contract expired August 31.
To this outsider, it looks like negotiations are going nowhere fast.
As I wrote last week, there are two likely scenarios going forward. A contract agreement will be reached and (relative) peace will reign, with teachers making major concessions.
If agreement is not reached soon — very soon — the district may impose a settlement, using powers granted it under Act 46, the law that engineered the state takeover of the district.
If the district does impose, duck. Teachers will certainly respond by taking the issue to the Supreme Court, which is given immediate control of any legal challenge to Act 46.
They could also engage in retaliatory tactics, such as work-to-rule or sick outs. A strike is unlikely because Act 46 specifically forbids that job action and allows the state Education Secretary to pull the certification of anyone who walks. But, you never know — the teachers are angry and hurt, they feel besieged by real and imagined enemies. Some may strike illegally to hobble the district.
Fearing a loss in the courts or the ruckus that would ensue after it imposed, the district could also continue to live under the terms of the existing contract and continue contract talks.
This presents problems. The district says it needs $130-million in financial concessions from its unionized workers to fill a hole in its budget, with $103 million coming from the PFT. If teachers and others continue to work at the old scale, the district will face a cash crisis later in the school year. What will it do? You got me. Maybe end the school year early. Perhaps make another 1,300 layoffs to eliminate the $130-million hole. Declare an impasse and impose new terms under Act 46 in February.
Like I said, chaos.
While the district has been consistent and clear in its demands, the PFT has not. It is hard to divine its strategy, though if I had to guess it would be this: the union wants a hold- harmless contract of short duration that includes some modest economic concessions — then hope for a better day.
Under this scenario, Gov. Corbett, who is facing re-election, will realize that his lack of support for education is hurting him with voters and he will ante up a lot more money for schools in his new budget for 2014-15. Variation two is that Corbett will be defeated in November 2014 by a pro-union Democrat who will pony up more money for the public schools.
If that’s the strategy, it falls well within the parameters of politics-as-usual in Pennsylvania: when confronted with a difficult problem, kick the can down the road.
One side effect of this strategy means that PFT President Jerry Jordan has sacrificed the thousands of his members who lost their jobs through layoffs and is willing to sacrifice more if Hite and the School Reform Commission decide they need yet more layoffs to balance the budget.
Sometimes you got to do what you got to do. Union leaders, confronted with loss of jobs for some versus deep cuts for all, often opt for losing jobs. Laid off workers don’t get to vote in union elections. It’s cynical and sad, but there it is.
Meanwhile, in the debate over the schools, hysteria reigns.
The union and its allies have a two-pronged message about Corbett: One, he is evil incarnate, the cause of all the district’s woes, an anti-child, anti-Christ who must be defeated. Two, they want him to please give the district more money. Now.
My experience is that kind of messaging is rarely persuasive. To analogize, imagine a four-year-old kicking his mother in the shins in order to convince her to give him more candy.
This is not new. The union and its supporters have a way of asking for help by first poking someone in the eye. They did it to Mayor Nutter recently, running an ad that lambasted him for failing to support education, in an unholy alliance with Corbett.
The claim is patently false, almost laughably so.
Nutter has raised property taxes twice, business taxes once, tried to impose a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes and has agreed to stop expiration of a one-point add-on on the sales tax all the name of helping the schools. When all is said and done — if this pastiche of taxes become law — the city’s contribution to the district will have increased by 25 percent during the Nutter years.
And that makes him an enemy of public education? I think not.
The union and its allies also are spending a lot of time and rhetoric trying to convince Nutter to publicly criticize Corbett as an Enemy of Public Education. This is the equivalent of asking the mayor to punch himself in the face. How does it possibly help Philadelphia’s cause by having the mayor attack the man with all the money?
Again, I keep trying to look through the stupid to see the rationale. The only thing I can think of is that the PFT wants the mayor to importune the School Reform Commission –and his two appointees there — to accept its kick-the-can-down-the-road strategy and give them a short-term contract.
They also want him to lead a regional crusade to change the state’s funding formula for the schools so Philadelphia and other needy districts get a bigger share. That would be a tough sell if Nutter tried to make it.
The Basic Education Subsidy, which is the main source of state money for the schools, is determined by a formula. If you jigger it to give Philly more money, it means other district will get less. Most of those districts are in the Philadelphia suburbs. I don’t think they are likely to join such a crusade.
The only way for a change in the formula to win approval in the legislature would be to increase the size of the pie — increase the amount of money in the BES so every district gains or is held harmless. That would cost a lot of money. A whole lot.
Under the existing BES, the state’s 504 school districts get $5.5 billion. Philadelphia’s share is $932 million or roughly 17 percent of the total. If you wanted to juice up Philly’s share by, say, $200 million using the formula, the BES would have to be increased by $1.2 billion.
There is discussion about changing the BES. There also is discussion about increasing state aid to education. But, my read of the situation is that none of this will be settled until after the 2014 election. If a Democrat wins, chances of change will be good. If Corbett wins re-election, chances are dismal.
In other words, waiting for the happy day when the state ups its support for the schools considerably is not be the best strategy in the face of the real and present financial difficulties of the district.
Hite has made it clear that, unlike his predecessors, he will not play “Let’s Pretend…,” as in, “Let’s pretend we will get more money from the state and spend as if we have it.”
For now and for the foreseeable future, the district will have to live within the resources it has. Hence, the layoffs and the demands for worker givebacks on wages and benefits.
Even if we stipulate that it’s all Corbett’s fault and that he is evil incarnate, it doesn’t raise a dime for the district.
The tragedy here is that many parents, confronted with chaos now and the prospect for more in the future, will be pushed to devise ways to escape the public schools. They will clamor for more charter seats to be created; they will enroll their children in cyberschools; they will migrate to private and Catholic schools; they will depart the city for the suburbs — which is where half the city’s teachers live.
I have no numbers to prove this scenario — ask me in three years what the picture is. But, I can offer a glimpse into the future. When the doors opened at St. Malachy’s CatholicSchool in North Philadelphia last week, it had 97 new students, a number of them refugees from the public schools.
Unless the chaos stops, the narrative about public education in the city will become a tale of parents fleeing to places where their children will have a modicum of stability, where they can get an education free of the uncertainty and strife offered by the public system.
What is happening today offers them proof that the system cannot change and will not change. Best to let it descend into chaos, without taking their children down with it.