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At this point, watching the drama of the Philadelphia public schools unfold is like watching Hamlet without Hamlet.
It’s an odd sensation. Swords clang, people declaim, plots are hatched, speeches are given, but one of the main characters is missing in action. He is not on stage, often not even in the theater.
Our Hamlet is Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Jerry is fundamental to the plot. He is the one who will have to make the wage and work rule concessions sought by the district and its superintendent William Hite.
Yet, he is nowhere to be seen. He is supposed to be deep in negotiations with the district over a new contract, to replace the one that expires on August 31. I fervently hope those talks are underway, but there is no tangible evidence of progress.
There is a lot at stake. Without financial concessions, thousands of PFT members laid off earlier this summer will lose their jobs.
With his members contract expiring August 31, with the school year scheduled to start September 9, you would think Jordan would be under tremendous public and political pressure to step on stage and join the action. Not so.
Never have so many said so little about something so important.
The political class seems willing to talk about anything but the PFT. It’s as if putting the words “teachers” and “concessions” together has been declared taboo. In a way, it has.
It is testimony to the power and influence accrued over the years by the PFT that hardly anyone – not on City Council, not in the state legislature – is willing to step forward and use their bully pulpits to tell the union to get serious and get talking and make concessions needed for the schools.
With the exception of Mayor Nutter, most pols are playing the roles of, um, handmaidens of the union.
For the PFT, the silence is golden. It diverts attention away from the fact that its members are central to any solution of the district’s problems.
Several months ago, I would have considered it inconceivable that Jordon would sacrifice several thousand of his members to avoid making concessions. Now, I am not so sure.
By sacrificing those who were laid off, the PFT may get an opportunity to try to play rope-a-dope once its contract expires — keep existing terms in effect, thus keeping all current work rules, wages and benefits in effect.
Confronted with demands for concessions from the Nutter Administration that is exactly what the municipal unions have done for the last four years. So why not the PFT?
There’s a complicated answer to that question.
For one thing, the take-over law that gave the state control over the district also gave the School Reform Commission the power to impose a new contract on the teachers once the old one expires. Although the power is explicitly stated in the law, it could be open to challenge in the courts, a challenge that could lead to delays in implementation while the lawyers argue it out.
For the PFT playing rope-a-dope would be a rearguard action, but better than surrendering anything. Besides, the union has allies on the bench, who –though impartial and above mere politics –may listen to the union’s case with a sympathetic ear.
The larger problem Jordan faces is that a no-compromise, no-surrender stance is so baldly at odds with the PFT’s ‘It’s all about the children’ message. If the current situation stands, come September union members will return to schools that have been laid to waste by layoffs. They know — better than we know — that the district’s capacity to deliver a decent education will be severely compromised.
So far, Jordan’s position has been consistent: it is the obligation of government to fund the schools and not to balance the budget on the backs of hard-working teachers. I agree.
But what happens when — in the real world — government fails to step up (see: The state of Pennsylvania) or its efforts fall short of filling the need (see: city of Philadelphia). If the boat is sinking do you refuse to bail because it’s not in your job description?
I am sad to see the situation devolve into a matter of how much money the teachers will throw in the pot for the district. I see no convincing evidence that teachers are paid too much, though they do get benefits that private workers could only dream of having — including a top-notch pension and zero worker contributions to their health insurance; a perk that teachers in most suburban diaries would envy as well.
I would rather see the fight center on work rule changes sought by the district, which would clearly mean a lessening of teacher power, but offer the chance to make the public system more competitive with charter schools, where power is centered in the principal.
But, I don’t get to pick my fights and neither does Jerry Jordan.
The day is going to come when he is going to have to step to center stage and face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
I pray it is sooner than later.