Ackerman Takes on a Union-Busting Role

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In the past couple of years, the issue of alleged "union busting" in public schools has taken center stage—and suddenly Philadelphia finds itself a major battleground.

In the widely publicized and polarizing battle between Wisconsin teachers and Republican lawmakers, the two sides locked horns to fight over whether teachers would continue to have collective-bargaining rights.

Closer to home, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's heavy-handed tactics with teachers' unions in the Garden State have led critics to accuse him of acting like a Middle East dictator.

And advocates in Pennsylvania have accused Gov. Corbett of similar harsh practices after he called for teachers in the commonwealth to sacrifice by taking raise freezes.

Now the war over teachers' unions has moved to Philadelphia, where the schools are embroiled in a budget crisis.

Recent moves by Arlene Ackerman and her staff have led many of her critics to a suspect that the schools superintendent is on a mission to defang the unions.

Thousands of rank-and-file members lost the protection of the union in the expansion of the district's Renaissance Schools Initiative, which converts struggling schools into either charter schools or institutions run by the district's central administration with a longer school day and year.

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She had also been driving unions to reopen contracts to give back $75 million in concessions, and, as a final blow, she's threatened to cancel their agreements if they don't cooperate.

Last month, the School Reform Commission approved exempting 200 teachers in Promise Academies from the series of layoffs district launched to close a $629 million deficit.

Tomorrow, a judge will determine whether the district violated the union's collective-bargaining agreement by exempting those teachers from the layoffs.

If the district gets its way, more schools—each with hundreds of instructors—will not be subjected to union protection. "Her decisions have done nothing more than minimize the PFT's reach by decreasing membership," said a district employee and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers member who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Jerry Jordan, head of the PFT, the district's largest union, has also taken notice.

"Not only does it hurt the PFT, but the children in Philadelphia," he said. "The actions are taken without any kind of discussion.

"They profess to work with the union, but they go in the opposite direction unilaterally. It's disrespect."

A district spokeswoman said the district's decisions stem from an unprecedented budget shortfall and nothing else.

"We have invited all of our union partners to the table to discuss ways we might achieve cost savings," said the spokeswoman, Jamilah Fraser. "The district has supported the unions in many areas."

Since Ackerman took the helm of the district in 2008, the 11,000-teacher workforce has been slashed closer to 9,000. So far this year, officials issued layoff notices to 1,672 teachers, including 323 special-education teachers, and 839 noninstructional support workers, Jordan said.

"You can't convince me that there's that much fat in the teachers' budget," Jordan said.

Vol. 30, Issue 36

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