Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Fortnight's Analysis of the News

Rebecca Poyourow choked up when thinking about how finances at Cook Wissahickon Elementary School have worsened despite efforts by her and other parents to fundraise, volunteer in afterschool clubs and organize a tutoring program to offset the effects of cuts in state aid a couple of years ago.  "I feel like we're staring into the abyss," Poyourow said. "I thought we could just put our hands in and make it work." Sabra Townsend hired a lawyer after her son's high school in the Germantown section of the city was closed and he was rejected by the other five schools to which he applied - including the one that was supposed to take children from the closed school."I'm sitting here like, 'What do you expect me to do?'" Townsend said. To be sure, many parents haven't followed the debacle and the little they've heard about it hasn't shaken their intent to send their children back to school. When Borges-Carrera asked parents at freshmen orientation day Thursday how many knew there would be no guidance counselors in the school, about half the hands went up.

  • PA Secretary of Education William Harner (the one who has been holding the city's $45 million hostage along with Budget Secretary Charles Zogby) was ousted earlier last week by Corbett over allegations of "inappropriate behavior" even though he has only held the post for 3 months. Did Harner know some inside information about the expired PFT contract that he did not feel comfortable about, or was this a legitimate firing, or am I over-analyzing? Dr. Carolyn Dumaresq, who now has the final say on the $45 million which is apparently linked to our contract, is now Pennsylvania's 3rd Secretary of Education since Corbett took office in 2011, raising serious concerns about Corbett's ability to govern...
  • The results are in for the Keystone Exams that were rolled out last year and Central and Masterman were the only two high schools in the city with failure rates of under 10%. It's sad how everyone expected the poor performance by mainly minority students in the city's other high schools.... Well it turns out the rich white kids in the suburban districts, like the girl interviewed for this article from Lower Merion, didn't do so well either. According to the ranking member of the PA Senate Education Committee from Chester County talking about students in his county, "since the plan has been phased in, 60 percent of students failed Algebra I and Biology and 45 percent failed Literature. As many as 75 percent of students have had to retake the test."  I guess now that rich white kids in the suburbs can't even pass PA's high-stakes standardized tests, they must be bad! What really got my blood boiling though, was how the article ends and the inherent inequality of how poorer kids are educated in this state is nonchalantly dismissed: Joseph J. O'Brien, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, pointed out that Keystones will not provide new information. He predicted the more affluent districts will do substantially better than the poorer ones. "Thus, we will spend a large amount of money we do not have to provide something we already know," he said.
Where's the money for schools though?

  • Immediately following Monday's membership meeting, the PFT released an AFT funded poll showing the shifting attitudes towards Mayor Nutter and his teacher attacks, thereby showing our increased community support: Sixty-five percent of voters said they were "dissatisfied" with Nutter's education performance, while 30 percent reported being satisfied. Those numbers shifted from May, when 39 percent of voters were satisfied with the mayor's handling of the schools and 54 percent were dissatisfied. Corbett didn't fare any better - his negativity rating in Philadelphia is 48 percent, while the mayor's is 46 percent.
  • Jerry Jordan also had an editorial earlier this week in the paper where he said: "But rather than keep the focus on a conversation about how to increase revenue for schools (and whom to hold accountable for this mess), Mayor Nutter instead wants to shift more attention to work rules in the PFT contract. These kinds of personnel management concerns are worthwhile to discuss, particularly in more secure economic times. But to focus on work rules when our schools can't afford copy paper is an irresponsible distraction from what really matters."

It seems that the PFT's lawyers may be taking the stance that Act 46 was ENACTED in 1998, authorizing the state to take over the District at any time, even though it did not do so immediately. On December 21, 2001, then Secretary of Education Charles Zogby (now Corbett's Budget Secretary and the one who is really pulling the strings to hold the $45 million hostage) actually TRIGGERED Act 46, thus creating the SRC and authorizing the state takeover.

Since then, the District has negotiated, in good faith, with the PFT for a 2004-2008 contract, 2009 extension, 2009-12 contract, and current 2013 extension. That is a LONG TIME of good-faith negotiating and NO contract imposition - thereby creating a legal argument that Act 46 was a one-and-done deal. If a contract was to be imposed, it should have legally been done when the SRC was created, or at the very least when that first contract expired in 2004. The argument would be: Why did the SRC continue to negotiate in good faith, honor those contracts, and not impose their own terms? THAT is why Pedro Ramos, a "seasoned attorney who leads his firm's government, education and social sector practice" (straight from the District's website!) sought Harrisburg's approval to impose contract terms in 2012, instead of doing it outright - Ramos basically doesn't think the SRC still has the authority to do so and imposing terms could lead to a teacher LOCKOUT... and that's a whole different store from a strike. Read more about a possible lock-out in this article with interviews from PFT attorney Deborah Willig, Charles Zogby, and Jerry Jordan.

Keep in mind, however, that the PA Supreme Court is currently composed of 4 Republicans and 3 Democrats... Would this Republican majority vote against a law passed by a Republican Governor and Republican legislature, currently being pushed to the forefront by another Republican Governor and Republican legislature?

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION to what Michael Masch (to be fair, a Democrat) recently had to say on the matter in an exclusive interview with The Notebook:
Does the School Reform Commission even have the right to impose contract terms on the PFT – and unilaterally cut teacher pay – if no contract agreement is reached?“If the SRC is going to take that position, they should cite where they get the authority,” Masch said.Masch was a member of the Board of Education when it was disbanded, and subsequently became a member of the SRC before joining the Rendell administration as state budget secretary and then the District as its finance chief. He has been part of several contract negotiations in these various roles and said he heard several legal opinions on the issue of whether the District can impose its own terms.Ultimately, he said, a judge or judges will have to interpret the state law – so-called Act 46, or the Distressed School Act – that gave the SRC power to run the District.But he cited some relevant portions of the law, arguing primarily that the SRC had one shot to impose contract terms – in the contract right after it was formed. Because the SRC has repeatedly bargained with the PFT on issues such as salaries, benefits and the length of the school day, Masch said that it is arguable that it has forfeited its right to impose terms now, regardless of its financial bind.The law says, “If upon the termination of a collective bargaining agreement in effect on the date of the declaration of distress under this section a new collective bargaining agreement has not been ratified, the School Reform Commission shall establish a personnel salary schedule to be used until a new agreement is ratified.”“Once the SRC is created, the contract in effect expires,” Masch said. “If the union and District refuse to ratify a contract at that moment, the SRC can impose a pay plan. But it doesn’t say that it can do that at any subsequent time in the future.”

Here's something to think about as the School District of Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest public school systems, prepares to open with a skeleton staff on Monday because of a manufactured $304 million shortfall...
  • As we draw closer to war with Syria, remember that EACH Tomahawk Missile costs $1.5 million and continuing to keep our aircraft carriers within striking distance costs $25 million PER WEEK, PER SHIP. This puts a price tag on any type of military engagement at a minimum of $1 billion. When asked about this potential cost, the US Navy chief said these costs would not be "extraordinary" because, if you put it in context, it really won't be when one considers the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan cost over $4 trillion.
It's nice to see where our country's priorities lie.

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