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Philadelphia Teachers Union Contract Unilaterally Cancelled as PA’s 'War on Teachers' Rages On

School Reform Commission leaders defend their controversial decision.On Monday morning, the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to cancel the contract of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), a move of questionable legality that should ultimately land the two sides in court. 

Using what they believed to be power granted by Act 46, the state takeover law, the SRC voted unanimously to impose new healthcare terms on PFT members at a Monday morning meeting. The move effectively cancels the teachers’ union contract. The SRC says it will not seeks cuts teachers’ wages.  

PFT President Jerry Jordan called the decision a “cowardly act,” “illegal,” and promised to fight it in court:

“What happened this morning at the SRC meeting was the perfect example of the total, total disrespect for the teachers and other school employees who work in the school district, the people who are spending thousands of dollars out of their pockets to educate Philadelphia’s children.”

If deemed legal, the move would force PFT members to pay out of pocket for health insurance, to the tune of 10 to 13 percent of each paycheck, which would range from $27 to $71 a week depending on salary. In a statement following the vote Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said:

“Philadelphia is one of only two districts across the commonwealth that pays zero toward healthcare. It is now time that members of the PFT join the thousands of public school employees across the state who already contribute to their health care costs.”

The PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund will also be phased out and its current balance of $40 million will go to principals of schools to be used in classrooms. Contributions to the fund will continue until December 15th and then be halted. The fund will then be allowed to run out. By the end of the year all school district employees will be covered under a district-managed health plan. The district will also stop the PFT’s practice of subsidizing retirees for their vision, dental, and prescription drug benefits.

In total, the district believes the changes will save them $54 million this year and $70 million each year thereafter. The school district currently has a balanced budget but faced a deficit of $81 million until recently. Until the health insurance move was made the district determined that it faced an $8 million deficit for the rest of the year and a projected $70 million for next year.  

The PFT says it has been fighting a “war on teachers” under Corbett. Funding for the school district has been dire since extreme budget cuts he made after taking office in 2010. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) called the vote a “well planned Hail Mary ambush” by Governor Corbett, who is locked in a tough reelection bid.

“Corbett’s School Reform Commission has amped up a war on teachers and support staff,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “The commission would rather attempt to impose a contract than work with teachers to figure out what is best for Philadelphia’s kids.”

As we wrote in June of 2013, Pennsylvania GOP insiders suggested that Governor Corbett use the PFT as a “wedge topic” to help his chances of getting reelected. The latest Quinnipiac polls, released the morning after the SRC vote, show Corbett 17 points behind challenger Tom Wolf. It is unclear what the impact of the SRC’s decision will be on public perception, especially considering the array of legal questions.

For an in-depth look at the situation including a detailed history of how the two parties reached this point, read the excellent work of Kristen Graham and Martha Woodall at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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