I am writing this piece on the day that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract with the School District of Philadelphia expires. Since the last time I wrote about the terms of the contract, PFT president Jerry Jordan has held a press conference stating that the union (of which I am a member) was unwilling to accept wage cuts but would be willing to change the terms under which the district provides health insurance to its employees. I will probably talk about those specifics in a later post, but I think the more pressing issue can be found in Mayor Nutter’s response to Jordan. He said that he was disappointed that the union was not saying anything about staffing flexibility and other work rules. In concert with the School Reform Commission’s actions to suspend parts of the Public School Code that affect seniority rules, it is clear that this is a major focus of the negotiation/standoff. So I’d like to discuss that in a little more detail.
But before we do that, I want to put the most important part of this discussion right up front. I believe that it is important to ensure that experienced aides, counselors, secretaries, and teachers remain in the district. I know that there are lots of anecdotes about people who have been on the job too long, who seem to have lost their enthusiasm or not kept up with technology and other changes. Those are valid concerns and they are part of the reason why there is a process for continuing to evaluate people. But overall, research supports the idea that experienced teachers and school staff help students. It takes time to build relationships with students. It takes time to find your voice in the classroom. It takes time to develop lessons, see where they work, and reiterate to fix where they don’t. If teaching becomes a high-turnover profession where teachers move on to other fields after two to five years, our children will be faced with a system that is constantly restarting from scratch. The seniority rules I’m talking about here are designed, in part, to avoid that situation.
When we talk about seniority rules and PFT members, it’s important to remember that not only are there different types of seniority, but there are different ways that seniority is used. There is usually a two-step process involved in getting an assignment in the School District of Philadelphia. The first step is to be hired by the district. This can be done by the central administration. Once this happens, you are “in the system,” and eligible to be assigned to a specific school. But at this point you do not have an assignment yet. This seniority, which reflects how long you have been employed by the district, is called “system seniority.”
Once you get assigned to a particular school, you begin accruing seniority in that school. This type of seniority is referred to as “building seniority.” There are actually technicalities that can result in you carrying your building seniority from one assignment to another, but I’m going to put them to the side.
For example, I was hired by the district in March of 2009 for a start date of September 1. But at that time I did not have a specific assignment. I was allowed to interview with individual principals through the site-selection process (more on that later) and, if none of those principals hired me, I would pick from available vacancies closer to the school year. I spent three days at one high school before classes started, and then got hired by the principal at Parkway Center City on the Friday before classes started. So my system seniority and my building seniority are mostly, but not entirely, in sync. If I chose to leave Parkway Center City to teach at another school, my building seniority would reset to zero while my system seniority continued to accrue.
So how are these types of seniority used in staffing? Let’s start with system seniority. When the district decides that it has to cut its overall staff levels, as it did in 2011 and again this year, it puts all the employees in different categories (social studies teachers, math teachers, counselors, etc.) into lists based on their system seniority. So there might be a list of social studies teachers, and I would be ranked below a teacher hired in 2006 but above a teacher hired in 2011. Let’s say there are 500 social studies teachers and the district decides they only need 450 because of schools closing. The 50 teachers at the bottom of the list – the 50 with the least seniority – would be laid off. Then, as time passed, as social studies vacancies opened up in the district, the district would start calling those 50 people back to fill them. The laid-off teacher with the most system seniority would be called back first, then the laid-off teacher with the next most system seniority, and so on. Until they get called back, these laid off teachers have no salary and get no benefits. They are unemployed.
Now let’s talk about building seniority. Let’s say that a particular school has to lose a teacher because the enrollment is down. So instead of five social studies teachers, the school will only have four. The teacher who has been at that school for the shortest time will lose his or her position at the school, but will still be employed. So that teacher will still get a salary and benefits. He or she will need a new assignment. This teacher is considered a “forced transfer” and goes through the same process as a new hire – able to participate in the site selection process, or choosing from the available vacancies. For the teachers who decide to choose from the list of available vacancies, the order in which they choose is based on system seniority. So a force-transferred teacher who has been in the district for five years chooses before one who has been in the district for four.
It’s the use of system seniority to pick assignments that gets a lot of attention when politicians and administrators start talking about flexibility. Why should Teacher A get a certain slot just because he’s been working in the district for six years, instead of Teacher B who’s only been here for four? Over time that system has been altered, with the introduction of the site-selection process. If a position is to be filled through the site-selection process, a school’s principal and a committee of teachers interviews candidates that have already been cleared by the district and chooses one for the job. Some schools fill all of their positions this way; others fill a certain percentage. This is the system that was in place when I was hired, and it makes sense to me for filling vacancies. More veteran teachers might disagree with me, but overall the union has worked to implement this system.
So the PFT has already shown some flexibility on how vacancies at specific schools are filled. Why do people like Mayor Nutter keep talking about flexibility? Why did Superintendent Hite ask the SRC to suspend part of the school code? Because they’re gong after the way that seniority is used to determine who gets laid off and who gets called back when the district makes overall cuts. They want to be able to keep a teacher who has only been in the district for three years and lay off one who has been there for ten. They want to be able to call back a counselor who has only been in the district for five years instead of one who has been there for twenty.
Why is this such a big deal? Well, as a union member, I support the idea that if I invest a certain amount of time in a job, it’s good that I earn some job security as a result. I think that this has benefits for me as a teacher and for the students I work with. Eliminating seniority protections with regard to layoffs allows administrators to make an end run around the due process required to terminate an employee. I believe that many principals would not do this, but it only takes one two bad actors to abuse the system. And even administrators in good faith can let their own beliefs and personal relationships color a process, which is why contractual due process is so important. If I believe that a student has earned a failing grade in one of my classes, I have to follow a process to document and justify that belief. I believe that similar caution is warranted when someone’s job is at stake.
Beyond the actions of individual administrators, by suspending seniority rules the district is creating a situation in which it can replace more experienced, more expensive employees with less experienced, cheaper ones. That might help the bottom line for a while, but it is not going to help schools in poorer areas that already struggle to provide students with experiences, qualified teachers. We are already seeing some charter schools and organizations such as Teach for America adopt the idea that teaching is not a profession that someone makes a career from, but a stepping stone to some future endeavor. The link goes to a recent New York Times article on the topic that ends with a quote from a 24-year-old teacher who says,
I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.
I want to move on to something bigger and better too. I want my skill as a teacher to get bigger. I want my classroom to be a better place for my students to learn and grow. I believe that the seniority rules help make that possible, and that’s why I’m willing to fight to protect them.