Philly Teachers Union Offering Contract Concessions

The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on Saturday

Four days before the labor contract between Philadelphia's public school teachers and the district expires, the head of the teachers union says his group is ready to make concessions.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan is planning to offer forgoing pay increases and changing the way health benefits are handled in the group's next contract when the two sides go back to the negotiating table.

"What we are proposing is not a long-term solution, just trying to piece together a way to open schools safely," Jordan said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Questioned about what specific health insurance changes the union is preparing to make, Jordan did not offer details saying only that the proposal is up for negotiation. The union's 15,000 members currently do not contribute to their health insurance plan.

The teachers and district have been at odds over details of a new contract at the same time district officials pleaded for additional money to close a $304 million budget deficit. That deficit resulted in nearly 4,000 layoffs of teachers, administrators, secretaries and counselors and the ending of arts programs and extra curriculars like sports.

Emergency funding, in the form of $50 million, has been promised to the district by city officials, allowing the rehiring of around 1,000 staff. District Superintendent Dr. William Hite has said those staff are vital to operating safe schools.

Officials have asked for the teacher's union to make $103 million worth of contract concessions in the next agreement through 5-to-13-percent pay cuts and health benefit contributions.

But the union has said its members have already given too much to accept, what they feel are, drastic cuts.

Joseph Beech, a teacher at Fels High School in the city's Lawncrest section, says he has difficulty making ends meet and buys so many classroom supplies on his own that his basement "looks like a Staples warehouse."

"I have had difficulty with the bills and my wife has told me on many occasions, 'Look we have to cut out here.' We've cut back on the contributions to our church,'" he said.

Jordan could not provide an amount this latest proposal could save the district, but did acknowledge the concessions would not total $103 million. He says the proposed changes will, however, help provide students with safer schools.

"We're comfortable in making these recommendations because no one has a greater desire to give our students best opportunity," he said.

Responding to the union's announcement, School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard said officials have asked for all employees to make cuts due to the budget crisis.

"We clearly have a ways to go on both economics as well as on important educational reforms that will provide the type of learning environments our children deserve," Gallard wrote. "We look forward to continuing the collective bargaining process."

Upset over the current state of education funding in the city, the union produced an ad blasting Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. In the ad, Mayor Nutter is accused of sitting back and allowing Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett cut education monies to the city's schools as well as promoting charter school development and demanding teachers make concessions.

Incised by the ad, the mayor has been vehemently defending his support for public schools. Fed up over the debate, he sent this tweet about the issue last night, using a hashtag to brag about his record.

Mayor Nutter addressed the union's plan specifically through a statement Wednesday afternoon. In it, he acknowledged the union "recognized that it must play a role" in solving the budget crisis and criticized the plan for lacking detail.

"I am hopeful that today’s sudden and unusually timed announcement is the first step toward a contract that fulfills the district’s need for new work rules and $103 million, which in turn will enable our schools this fall to provide close to the level of staffing that schools had in June when our students were last in their classrooms,” he wrote.

The union and district went back to the negotiation table Wednesday afternoon.

The teachers' current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Saturday -- a little more than a week before the official start of the school year on September 9.

Jordan says he will present the recommendations to members at a meeting Monday night. The proposal will need to be approved by, not only, the union's members, but also the district to take effect.

Asked about whether he would vote for the recommended concessions, Beech says he'll do what's necessary.

"Well, I can't speak for all teachers, but I can speak for me. Teachers are givers, that's what we do," he said.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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