Philadelphia teachers union says negotiations faltering

PHILADELPHIA - Negotiators for the school district and a teacher's union spent Labor Day at the bargaining table, trying to avert the city's first school strike since 1981.

The school year is supposed to start Thursday for more than 200,000 Philadelphia students. But after a weekend of contract talks failed to reach an agreement, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers scheduled a strike vote for Tuesday morning. Under state law, the union must give the district 48 hours' notice of a walkout.

Teachers union President Ted Kirsch said Monday that negotiations were not progressing and that the executive board would recommending the teachers strike.

''We have responded positively and creatively at the table, willing to break ground on each and every issue to improve education in the district. But at the 11th hour, it has become apparent that the district has no intention of honoring their side of the bargain,'' union spokeswoman Barbara Goodman said Monday.

Hundreds of teachers gathered in downtown Philadelphia for a Labor Day rally, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke. The educators pledged solidarity and vowed to strike if necessary.

''It's going to hurt the children. Is the board really thinking about the children?'' said first-grade teacher Jacqueline Chapman, wearing a sandwich board that read ''Striking for safe schools'' on one side and ''$$$ for schools before stadiums!'' on the other - a reference to the city's plans to spend hundreds of millions on new baseball and football stadiums.

Mayor John F. Street, who hand-picked the school board now locked in negotiations, took to the podium and tried to reassure the teachers of the city's intentions.

''There's nothing that we would like more than to get a contract. We have to have a contract,'' he said.

The 21,000-member union has so far rejected the district proposals to extend the school day and school year, increase co-payments for health insurance, institute a pay scale based on teacher performance rather than years of experience and level of education, and give principals more say in teacher job assignments. Currently, vacancies are filled through seniority.

The union wants smaller classes, stronger early-childhood education, a new reading program and enhanced school security.

District officials have said they will face an $80 million shortfall in their $1.6 billion budget even without granting pay raises the union said were needed to keep talented educators in the city.

''There's no question in my mind and in the minds of every PFT member I've talked to that they're ready to go out on strike,'' Kirsch said.

In 1997, the median average teachers' salary was $49,600, according to analysis of state records by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Gov. Tom Ridge has promised to work for additional state funding if teachers agree to a contract overhaul.

Ridge also has said the state might take over the poor-performing district if teachers walk out. A state law passed in 1998 allows the governor to assume control of city schools if the school board does not produce a valid budget or state officials determine that it is not adequately educating pupils.

Although state law does not bar teachers from striking, it does prevent a work stoppage denying school children of 180 days of school per calendar year. Teachers could strike for more than six weeks without a disruption to the 180-day school year, although there would likely be no scheduled vacations and days off.


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