Saturday, April 5, 2014

When Words Need to Be Said

I'll preface this by mentioning that Dr. William Hite is the newly appointed superintendent of Philadelphia's public schools. The school district was taken over by the state in 2001 and Dr. Hite is experiencing his first full school year at the helm. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is currently working without a contract since September, 2013. The School Reform Commission wants pay givebacks of about 15-20%, additional contributions to medical benefits, and work rule changes which include eliminating tenure and seniority, a longer school day and a longer school year with no pay increases. 3000 staff members were laid off last June. Many schools are currently operating with either no counselor, or one for every 1,500 students, no assistant principals, no classroom aides, no dean of students, no paper, not enough books, and 33 students to a class. Hite is threatening to eliminate seniority and tenure. Talks are at an impasse and Hite has gone to the PA Supreme Court to clarify which work rules he is legally allowed to change unilaterally.

Dr. Hite is up in arms because the union is upset that he wants to strike certain non-teaching requirements from the contract. Suggested language removal includes the provisions that every teacher must have a desk, chair and a lockable place to put their personal items such as a coat and pocketbook. Also included in the removable language are at least one workable water fountain in the school and provisions for heat and electricity in every classroom, and indeed an office with a door available for speech and counseling therapists. Desks and chairs for each student is also mentioned in the contract.

Dr. Hite states that those things should be a given, and it’s ridiculous to find them spelled out in the contract, but we know differently. There was a time when students had to sit on the floor because there were no desks or chairs. The union fought for each student to have them. We won.

There was a time when some teachers were expected to teach in a room without a blackboard, whiteboard, or any large surface on which to write. The union made sure it was written into our contract.

There was a time when there was no place to hang your coat or put your personal things. This is dangerous and an invitation to theft. It’s bad enough that computers, laptops and other things are stolen through locked doors, but not having a place to store your personal items in unconscionable. We fought for that language to go into the contract and we won.

There was a time when counselors, speech and occupational therapists, and psychologists were not guaranteed a room, much less a room with a door for privacy. Can you imagine discussing someone’s most private thoughts and troubles while open to the public to hear? Can you imagine trying to take a psychological test while open to the jeers and stares of people passing by? Or practicing speech exercises practically in front of an audience? No, neither could the union. So we fought for it to go into the contract and we won.

We fought for being able to leave a classroom for a better space when it got below or above a certain temperature. There have been times when my classroom in winter was below 55 degrees, where the children wore their coats, hats and gloves in class. We've also spent days in the class when the temperature was 95 degrees, with no ceiling fans and only 3 working windows that only opened 6 inches. No learning went on, but lots of sleeping and many trips to the one working water fountain in the school. The union insisted on, and got, acceptable working conditions put into the contract.

We fought for the availability of a working water fountain in every school. In reality, there should be working fountains on every floor. Because our school is full of 90-year-old lead pipes, the sinks in the bathrooms have DO NOT DRINK FROM SINK signs over them - that water is not potable. Can you imagine a building housing 2000-4000 students with only ONE fountain that works? That was the best we could do, to get the School District to require one working water fountain at school. But we fought for it, and we won.

Working bathrooms for teachers was another issue, as was the availability of electricity in every room, and windows that actually can be raised and lowered. These are all things that should be taken for granted, that will be supplied by the School District but weren’t, in the not-so-distant past. We had to give up other things to fight for this language to be put in our contract so that the students and the teachers are able to do their jobs in school. Given the current level of trust and openness between the School District and the teachers, I wouldn’t let ANYONE take this language out of the contract that is being negotiated between the two parties.

Would you?

PFT President, Jerry Jordan responds to a situation caused by layoffs, and removal of seniority in rehiring from layoffs.

Still learning!

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