Can Schools Be Fixed When the Bosses Are Unionized?

Philadelphia's principals are sacrificing a lot, but they should be thinking like the professionals they are.
May 22, 2015
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Three unions are sacrificing to help the Philadelphia schools emerge from what feels like a permanent fiscal crisis. But the very existence of one of those unions provides a clue as to how the school district got into trouble in the first place.

The state took control of Philadelphia's schools in 2001. The district is governed by a five-member School Reform Commission, three of whom are appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. Budget crises nearly delayed the opening of school twice in recent years.

A new contract agreed to by the cafeteria workers and noontime aides of Unite Here Local 634 shows that union's willingness to do its part to help alleviate the crisis. The agreement gives the workers a raise from $10.88 and hour to $12.67 over the four-year term of the contract, but it also allows the district to temporarily stop paying into the union's health and welfare fund and eliminates seniority as the sole factor in layoffs and other staffing decisions. "The willingness of a labor partner whose members include our lowest-compensated staff to make a shared sacrifice on behalf of our students and schools sends a powerful message," said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

Three years ago, the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which includes bus drivers, cleaners and building engineers among its members, also pitched in by signing a four-year contract that is saving the school district $100 million. Members agreed to freeze wages, forego 5 percent raises that were due to them under the previous contract, and contribute between $15 and $45 per week, depending on each worker's earnings, to help reduce the district's deficit. In return, the agreement preserved the jobs of most of the union's 2,700 members during the term of the contract.

And last year the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the union that includes principals and assistant principals, signed a deal that saves the school district $20 million over three years. The agreement switches the union's members from a 12-month to a 10-month schedule, reducing the annual base salary range from between $124,900 and $149,900 to between $97,000 and $124,900.

That's a significant sacrifice, to be sure. But the fact that the people who run Philadelphia's schools are unionized in the first place belies a fatal flaw in the district's operations. Philadelphia is hardly alone; New York and Washington, D.C., are among the cities in which top administrators belong to a union, but that doesn't make it right.

Personnel is the district's largest expenditure. On a practical level, unionized school executives make it harder to cut short-term costs during a crisis because so much of the budget pays for wages and benefits that are fixed by collective-bargaining agreements.

But beyond that consideration, it's important to keep in mind that school principals are also professionals, and a closer look at the Philadelphia principals' contract reveals an agreement more appropriate to Industrial Revolution-era assembly-line workers. The contract stipulates that in addition to their base pay, members could work up to 15 days during August of last year, 13 days this August and 10 in August of 2016. As if that's not prescriptive enough, 10 of the days worked last August were to be for "summer reorganization" and five for professional development. It's just like the bad contracts that dictate how many meetings teachers can be required to stay after school for and how long each meeting can last.

Two blue-collar Philadelphia school unions deserve credit for sacrificing for the sake of the district and the families it serves. There can be no doubt that professionals and assistant principals are also making a sacrifice, but there's an important difference: Professionals are paid to get a job done, not work a shift.

Part of the job of Philadelphia's school executives is to lead the district through the current fiscal crisis. That requires flexibility and creating a culture of leadership and accountability. Neither is served by unionized principals and assistant principals bargaining over how many days they should work to prepare for a new school year.