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Philadelphia Teachers Brace for Layoffs, Reassignments

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Budget cuts, school closings, and aggressive school turnaround efforts are likely to result in massive teacher reassignments and significant layoffs later this year, leaving many of the Philadelphia School District’s 11,000-plus teachers on edge.

“They’re terrified,” said Arlene Kempin, the general vice president and chief personnel officer for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

“We’re talking about people who [may] have been in a school for a while,” she said. “They feel they are part of a community, they know their students and families, they’ve worked with their colleagues for a number of years, and they’ve made arrangements in their own lives. People are upset, there’s no question about it.”

While acknowledging the growing unease, the district’s head of human resources, Estelle Matthews says it’s too early to speculate on just how many teachers will ultimately be affected.

“This is a stressful time for everybody,” said Matthews. “To put fictitious numbers out there would not be good. I don’t want to alarm anybody. As soon as we know the numbers, the teachers will know.”

The complicated chain of events is expected to begin unfolding soon, when the more than 1,000 teachers at the district’s 18 new Renaissance schools will be force-transferred. All must decide whether to reapply for their current jobs or seek positions elsewhere in the district. Up to eight of those schools could become charters, meaning that those positions are dropped from the district’s rolls.

Then, before the end of March, the district is expected to present to the School Reform Commission its recommendations for school closures and consolidations. Though it is not clear when those plans will be made public and though the SRC must hold a hearing and allow 90 days for public comment at each impacted school, the plans will eventually result in a second wave of displaced teachers seeking reassignment.

And finally, the district is expected to learn in the coming weeks the final size of its budget shortfall for 2011-12, which officials acknowledge may exceed $400 million. A likely result is that individual school budgets will be slashed, class size increased, and teacher positions reduced across the board.

The probable outcome of all the tumult: hundreds of displaced teachers competing for a limited number of vacant positions and the first large-scale teacher layoffs in the city in two decades.

“Everything is coming together, but we don’t know how, we don’t know exactly when, and we don’t know who [will be impacted],” Kempin said.

Renaissance Schools Go First

Rekha Bhatt, a fourth-year English teacher at West Philadelphia High School, is one of the early casualties of the upheaval.

Bhatt has degrees from Georgetown and the University of Pennsylvania and was named West’s teacher of the year in 2010. But she has already decided she won’t return to the district next year, and she may leave Philadelphia altogether.

“I feel like my performance in the classroom is at its peak, but it’s hard when there are so many other things going on to really feel like I have a sense of control,” said Bhatt. “It just feels very insecure.”

Bhatt went through a version of the reconstitution process last year, when West lost its principal and turned over about 40 percent of its staff following its aborted involvement in the first year of the Renaissance initiative.

“Seeing how [the process] sort of crashed and burned at West last year, I was left with a lot of questions about how it’s going to play out this year,” said Bhatt.

This year, West is one of ten new Renaissance Promise Academies—schools being “turned around” by the district itself. All 524 teachers will be force-transferred, and all will have had their chance by the end of this week to reapply to their same school. At the seven “Traditional” Promise Academies like West, no more than 50 percent of the staff can be rehired. At the district’s three new “Innovation” Promise Academies, the principal can bring back as many as he or she chooses.

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Those who don’t return to the Promise Academies will become the first group seeking reassignment. Last year, just 24 percent of the teachers were hired back in the first six Promise Academies. None of the others were laid off, but the district could not say how many stayed in the district.

For the six so-called “Renaissance Match” schools—those being turned over to outside management, probably as a charter—teachers who want to stay at their school must consider leaving the district and union protection.

Glenn McCarthy, a fourth-year social studies teacher at Simon Gratz High School in Nicetown, is one of roughly 500 teachers facing that dilemma.

“People are anxious about who’s going to take us over and what’s going to happen,” said McCarthy, who also serves as Gratz’s PFT building representative. “Personally, I like Gratz, and I’d really like to stay. But the charter operator may not hire me.”

Last year, just a handful of teachers in the schools turned over to charter operators were rehired by the new management. ASPIRA, which took over Stetson Middle School, retained 40 percent, but the others kept only a scattered few.

If that holds true again, hundreds more teachers will be on the hunt for a new position in the district.

‘I Don’t Want Chaos’

If the impact of the Renaissance process is uncertain, potential staffing changes that will result from the budget crisis and facilities master planning process are even harder to predict.

The budget shortfall is primarily the result of the end of federal stimulus money, as well as a likely decrease in state aid under the new Republican governor, Tom Corbett. The district is required to approve its budget by the end of May and will first unveil its tentative plan in April.

In March, individual schools will get their budgets. During this phase, all schools may lose teaching positions because of shrunken budgets—even the Promise Academies won’t be immune, officials said.

After Matthews’ office determines each school’s teacher allotment, a vacancy list is generated. Most of the open positions will be filled through site selection, in which teachers apply to and are interviewed at different schools. After that, positions are filled by seniority. While there is always some hiring right through September, in more normal years the bulk of the process takes place by May.

But this year, school closures and consolidations is almost certain to throw a wrench in the works.

A comprehensive facilities study found that the district has 70,000 empty seats in some 280 buildings, leading officials to embark on a process of “rightsizing.” If any schools are to close next fall, the district has until late May to give communities notice—a timeline that wreaks havoc with the teacher hiring and reassignment schedule.

“I have no idea how many schools we’re closing,” said Matthews. “[But] we are trying to be clear on what the number will be so we can consolidate [it] into our master plan for the hiring timeline.”

She added that the district is still hoping to develop a hiring and reassignment strategy that can take place all at once rather than in stages.

“I don’t want chaos,’ she said. “I’m going to do the best I can."

Not Just Teachers

Eventually, most observers agree, layoff notices will go out.

Who gets one will be determined primarily by “system seniority,” or teachers’ length of service in the district, though their type of certification will also play a role. The district will also take into account where teachers are needed the most; those in high needs areas, for example, might be retained regardless of their seniority.

Normal attrition will mitigate the final layoff numbers—in most recent years, more than 1,000 teachers either resigned or retired. The lowest number was 785 in 2008-09.

Still, many expect the final layoff number to be significant. According to PFT officials, the last large-scale teacher layoffs occurred in 1991 and 1992, when a few hundred teachers and support staff were laid off.

“My ultimate hope is that we are able to absorb everyone and that people don’t lose their jobs,” says Kempin. “But we at the PFT are taking this whole thing very seriously. We’re going to be monitoring things to make sure everything is done in a fair, consistent and contractual manner.”

District officials stress that any layoffs will begin in the district’s central administration, where staff is preparing for budget cuts of 30 percent. But those cuts would provide less than 10 percent of the total savings needed.

Perhaps the biggest losers of all will be students across the district. To make ends meet, the district may be forced to increase class size closer to the contractual limits of 30 in grades K-3 and 33 in other grades. Through hard-fought initiatives starting more than a decade ago, the district had reduced class size in grades K-3 to the low 20s, closer to suburban norms.

Beyond their concern for their own futures, many teachers are disheartened by what the uncertainty and eventual disruption will mean for the connections they have worked so hard to build.

“Teachers actually make a difference in young people’s lives,” said Anissa Weinraub, a fifth-year English teacher at Kensington Urban Education High School. “We don’t go into education for the money. We love our students, we love our schools, and we love our communities. When you get rid of teachers, you’re severing important relationships that young people have in their lives.”

Bhatt, the award-winning West Philadelphia teacher who has already decided to leave, said that this is a “challenging” time to be a teacher.

“We’re constantly seeing these measures that tell teachers that they are easily replaced and they’re not worth investing in,” she said. “I struggle with that every day.”

Vol. 30, Issue 24

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