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Tom Corbett's October Surprise: Screw Philadelphia Teachers, Get Reelected

Why the Philadelphia School Reform Commission just canceled its contract with the teachers union.
Tom Corbett's October Surprise: Screw Philadelphia Teachers, Get Reelected
Image from: phillymag.com

This happened yesterday morning, but I actually had to wait until my blood pressure dropped before I could write about it. (It still makes me want to blow a gasket, so excuse me if this is disjointed.) Under the guise of a budget crisis, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (the state-appointed board that took over our school district 15 years ago and was supposed to make it fiscally sound) called a surprise meeting to which the public was most emphatically not invited. They announced they were breaking the contract.

I sense the fine hand of 1%er-handmaiden Ed Rendell behind this move. He's been known to push young Bill Green, son of a former mayor, in the "right" direction for his career. I can hear him now, whispering in Green's ear about what a hero he'd be in the rest of Pennsyltucky...

Here's what Daily News blogger Will Bunch had to say:

There's an old saying that if you want to do something but you'd be embarrassed to tell your mom or dad about it, then...don't do it. How bad are your actions when you're too embarrassed to tell 1.5 million Philadelphians about it? I'd say, pretty bad -- and that makes one wonder, how much of this is really about "the kids" and how much of this is old-fashioned...

3) Politics. The contract stalemate between the SRC and the PFT has been going on for 21 months, so why take this vote in such a rash and arrogant fashion on this particular morning, October 6, 2014? Could it be because it's exactly 29 days before Pennsylvania votes on whether to keep Gov. Corbett -- who appointed the majority on the five-member SRC -- or ditch him for Democrat Tom Wolf.


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Do you remember that it was just last year that a Republican firm took a secret poll and used the report to urge Gov. Corbett that there was only one way that the foundering, unpopular governor could restore his image on education issues: To confront the Philadelphia teachers union.

Now, with Corbett in the political fight of his life and losing badly, the school commission led by the governor's appointees is starting a fight with the Philadelphia teachers' union.

What a remarkable coincidence!Look, I know what you're thinking -- Corbett is getting clobbered so badly in the polls that what does it matter at this point. I agree -- but why do NFL teams keep lobbing Hail Mary passes when they're losing by five touchdowns? Maybe Corbett figures a tough stance will appeal to suburban voters (although most of them are too freaked out by their own sky-high property taxes to notice). Maybe he's desperate for the chaos of a teacher's strike, which would violate a 1992 state law.

Here's a prominent Philadelphia Republican (yes, that's a thing, apparently) who came out practically minutes after the SRC vote saying that a) he hates (yes, hates) the union but b) pleads with them to strike. Another coincidence? A strike (which I seriously doubt will happen -- look for this to be fought in court) would be devastating to tens of thousands of schoolchildren. But, hey, politics ain't beanbag.

But even if you're a Corbett supporter, and even if you think those "pampered" teachers need to be taken down a few notches, you still should be outraged at the massive one-fingered salute that the SRC just gave to the notion of democracy and public discourse, and to the people of Philadelphia.

In Hong Kong this month, tens of thousands of people took to the streets because their dear leaders won't allow them to nominate their own candidates to lead local government. But how is what the SRC just did in the fog today any better? This almost-secret, barely legal meeting was a heartbreaking act of staggering cowardice. Every one of them -- SRC Chairman Bill Green (whose grandfather, a post-New Deal Democrat, surely would not have been pleased by this), and members Feather Houstoun, Farah Jimenez, Marjorie Neff, and Sylvia Simms -- is a gutless coward. They should be ashamed of what they've done.

Since the teachers never got their say at the meeting, they'll get it here:

Today, the School Reform Commission unilaterally voted to cancel the contract and require that PFT members begin paying for their benefits out of their own paychecks. In this age of supposed austerity, this proposal can masquerade as being reasonable. After all, many public employees already pay for benefits out of their own paychecks. Teachers should chip in like the rest of working America, right? The thing is, SRC’s demands have nothing to do with providing cash for the district, and everything to do with attacking teachers and their union for political gain. Let’s look at the facts to see what’s really going on.

  • The District has already saved millions with teacher salary freezes -- but won’t admit it or say how much. Any teacher who hasn’t yet reached the top of the salary schedulereceives an average salary increase of $2862.63 each year. With this second year of freezes, now these teachers are short an average of $5725.26 for 2014-215, but the district refuses say just how much these givebacks add up to, or even acknowledge this sacrifice already imposed on teachers.
  • $43.8 million may seem like a big number, but it’s a tiny piece of the pie. What the districts claims they will save with these benefits payments represents only 1.4% of the district’s 2014 operating budget. To see how the costs break down, check out this interactive visualization of the complete budget. (Try picking out which two central office budgets come closest to $43.8 million.)

Not yet convinced? Consider a few other expenses and revenue options:

  • Banks are currently making a fortune off of the district. Nearly 9 percent of the annual budget -- a whopping $276.4 million dollars -- goes towards debt servicing. That does not mean paying back debts. That just means paying interest on existing loans and bonds. Why is profit for big banks being valued over health care for teachers?
  • Charter operators are not being asked to give back. Non-District operated Schools represent 27.6% of the district’s budget. Since each charter network sets up its own system for benefits, SDP cannot impose an across-the-board change, but no demand for any kind of giveback is being made.
  • Philadelphia businesses are not being asked to pay their share. There are many ways that Philadelphia gives businesses a pass when it comes to supporting public education. The ten-year tax abatement has cost the city $26.1 million in potential revenue. Hotels owe the city another $2.6 million in unpaid taxes. All in all, new developments and improvements supported by tax abatements will cost the school district $50 million in 2014.
  • Philadelphia institutions aren’t, either. In the 1990’s, more than 40 tax-exempt non-profit organizations, including the University of Pennsylvania, provided the city with $9 million dollars worth of payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT). In 2011, that dwindled to below $400,000 and has dropped even more since then. By contrast, Princeton University alone gave $7.7 million in PILOT money to their community in 2012.

So, if it’s not about the money, then what’s it about? Look carefully at what else is being demanded.

  • In their statement, SDP calls for the dismantling of the PFT Health and Welfare Fund.This office is a cornerstone of the services that the union provides. Because they are not directly in charge of the funding, the Health and Welfare office is free to work as an independent advocate for members in need of its services, putting health and well-being before costs. Employer-based benefit programs typically do the opposite, making their bottom line a financial one.
  • Even if the system for health care coverage did change, there is no reason that the Health and Welfare fund couldn’t continue to manage those programs.
  • What else did the SDP choose to cut, effective immediately? Payments to the PFT Legal Services Fund.

Let the public know -- this is not really about funding. This is an attempt to dismantle the union that defends public education in Philadelphia.

A prominent Republican state politician told me years ago: When it comes to the GOP, their actions almost always come down to two things: Insurance, and bonds. Looks like someone wants control of the health insurance fund.

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