The Philadelphia Way

The Philadelphia School District is in trouble.  This is not new news.  The K-12 system graduates less than 50%.  Too many of those who do complete 12th grade cannot read or write at grade level.

There’s more. The District’s finances are just as bad.  There is a looming $ 1 billion deficit unless significant reductions are made.

Hmmm.  Poor educational results.  Giant budget deficits.  How does this get turned around?

The School District has wisely taken aim at the finances as its first step.  Recently the district announced the closing of 29 “neighborhood” schools.  These are the ones across the street or around the corner, where for years parents have walked their children to school.  Shifting demographics and declining enrollment has made these poor performing, under utilized schools an attractive target for savings.

The idea is that closure will save money, make other schools more efficient, and allow the district to focus on fewer locations in their effort to improve the educational product.

Hmmm.  Sounds logical.  But…

Residents living in those “proposed closing neighborhoods” have objected loudly.  And, yes, so has the Philadelphia Teachers Union.  This is business as usual… in times that are not usual.

The School District dropped another shoe today.  There are reports (Philadelphia Inquirer) the District will ask the Union for significant “give backs”.  For example, pay reductions of 5-13%, no pay increases until 2017, and providing “hire/fire” authority to principals.

In the past there would be public protests, union protests and strike threats, and then suddenly the City or State would increase the revenue the School District have to use.  The crisis would have been patched and life would go on.

While this could happen again, the possibility seems remote given the national and State’s budget dilemmas.  So is the School District’s proposals sensible?

The answer is no… but they are clever.  The Teachers Union needs to wake up to the world around them.  School closures save money.  Trying to reverse those decisions without an alternative plan to save an equivalent amount is simply irresponsible.  The School District is cleverly telling the Union they had better think about being part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Cutting teacher’s pay or granting principals hire/fire authority (without due process) are bad ideas.  Pay should be fair.  It is a fair question, however, whether shifting to a “pay for results” renumeration plan is an idea whose time has arrived.  Good performing teachers could receive increases while poor performers would not.

Principles with hire/fire authority begs the question of what process would be used and frankly are the principals qualified to judge.  Favoritism or incompetence unchecked will not improve education.  But with the education product so poor, why not try some other method like this?

The School District has cleverly told the Union if you want to employ your old methods and block everything we are proposing, then your members pay is at risk.  Hmmm.

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3 Comments on “The Philadelphia Way”

  1. tryanmax Says:

    Sympathy is at an all-time low for unions everywhere and in every sector. Certainly a teachers’ union that lets down over half its students deserves no sympathy.

    I’m a little confused when you say that the districts’ proposals are NOT sensible. Is this in response to the “give backs”? Or the whole plan including closing neighborhood schools?

    In either case, I think the plan is sensible. Generally speaking, pay reduction percentages refer to the whole, not per individual. It becomes up to the union to figure out what to do about it. If they were sensible, they would trim excess administration and such. It would certainly lend credence to their words when they grouse that the district’s actions don’t directly address education. (Incidentally, isn’t that what the union purports to do?) Of course, we know hiring and firing practices within unions is less that sensible.

    Such a long term pay freeze does seem a bit draconian, though from experience I can tell you that such freezes are generally in name only. Deep in the sausage-works are the details, probably involving promotions between job classes.

    As for giving hire/fire authority to principals–who are essentially the branch managers of the schools–who do you think might be better qualified?

    • T, good to hear from you again…

      The districts proposal on closing schools is quite sensible… it is only a matter of which ones.

      Their proposal on 5-13% reductions in pay is not warranted and in face of rising healthcare costs will hurt average people. But if the District wants a fight, proposing pay cuts and a freeze on top is the way to get it…

      There are legitimate reasons for increasing principal’s authority and well as seeking a longer school day. Closing under utilized schools also makes sense…

      There are several practical problems mixed in here. The lot of principles and their assistants are not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer. While Union leadership is no example either, the issue of “due process” is a fair question if one cuts the union out of hire/fire. (in this case, hire means that a principal gets to choose his teaching team… seniority does not insure that a teacher stays at the same school for ever…)

      My guess is the School District has decided to try and overwhelm the Union with so many demands… if the Union were reasonable, there are far better negotiation approaches.

    • tryanmax Says:

      I see what you’re saying, and a lot of it is the district’s proposals would compound the problems already occurring, which is totally valid. I don’t know how you root those sort of problems out short of a purge, however. The second best option, to my mind, is to limit resources and let those affected work out how to do the same with less. Given how little has been done, it shouldn’t be hard /sarc.

      No one WANTS to inflict pain, but I’m afraid we are in times where pain is going to be inevitable because hard decisions need to be made and be made everywhere. I certainly don’t mean to conflate the teachers themselves with the union that they belong to, so bear that in mind as I continue. If there is any consolation to be had in taking pay from teachers’ unions, it is that the union leaders will have to make the hard decision for a change–pay the teachers or pay themselves.

      I’ll forgo all the ironic statements that could be made about rising health costs at this date and instead suggest that if the Philadelphia teachers’ union is at all similar to other teachers’ unions elsewhere, they could probably save some money just by shopping around instead of favoring their buddies, as has been known to occur.

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