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Philadelphia Schools Struggle Through Eighth Strike in 13 Years

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Philadelphia--When school officials negotiated a new contract in August for the school district's 21,000-member teachers' union, they promised strike-weary students and parents that three years of labor peace were on the horizon.

But at the time, those officials made no mention of a long-running contract dispute with the union representing the district's 4,000 blue-collar workers.

Three weeks ago, Local 1201 of the International Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers walked off the job, shattering the promises of labor peace and plunging the School District of Philadelphia into its eighth strike since 1970 and its third in the last three school years.

Lynette Borum, a student at Benjamin Franklin High School is typical of Philadelphia's high-school seniors who experienced every strike in the district's history.

Since kindergarten, when the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (pft) struck for the first time, Ms. Borum's education has been interrupted as the result of strikes by the pft when she was a 2nd grader, by Local 1201 when she was a 7th grad-er, by the pft when she was an 8th grader, by both the pft and Local 1201 when she was a sophomore, the pft when she was a junior, and now that she is a senior, by Local 1201.

"I'm glad this is my last year," Ms. Borum said as the latest strike intensified and forced the closing of about one third of the city's 266 public schools on a day-to-day basis. "I can't deal with it any longer."

Since the strike began, district officials have reported widespread incidents of what they allege to be sabotage by union members--heating systems tampered with, windows broken, and school locks jammed.

Local 1201 represents maintenance workers, bus drivers, and custodians, who ordinarily operate school heating systems. In the schools that have remained open during the strike, teachers have reported near-freezing temperatures in classrooms.

The union has denied any role in the incidents.

The issue that has stalled contract negotiations is a 10-percent pay raise contained in the union's previous contract but rescinded by the board of education in May 1981 to help close a budget deficit, at the time in excess of $200 million.

The union is demanding a new contract as well as the chance to win a suit now in the courts over the disputed raise.

The district counters that it cannot offer Local 1201 a new contract until the union waives any claim to that disputed raise. School officals say they cannot afford the $21-million cost of that raise, which would have to be paid retroactive to September 1981.

What concerns many school officials most, though, is a return of cynicism here toward the school system, the nation's fifth largest.

A new superintendent, Constance E. Clayton, took office in October and quickly began the task of re-building the system's image. But now much of the momentum that she had created, school officials say, is being slowed by the strike.

"Cynicism is very easy to come by," said Herman Mattleman, a school-board member. "Casual people who don't really know the insides of this thing will say, 'There they go again."'

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