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1,500 Philadelphia teacher layoffs remain on hold

June 14, 2011 8:59:11 AM PDT
At a time when the school year is supposed to be winding down, the education debate is heating up in Philadelphia, where the cash-strapped school district continues to be the target of rallies, protests and lawsuits since issuing the largest number of teacher layoff notices in a generation.

Though a court hearing Tuesday on the layoffs was postponed, the mayor was visiting several schools in an effort to assess planned cutbacks and drum up support for additional taxes to benefit the district. Even as he toured the buildings, tax opponents readied to protest at City Hall.

The state's largest district, which serves about 203,000 traditional and charter school students, is facing a record $629 million deficit.

Tuesday's developments come a day after the state Supreme Court waded into the fight between the Philadelphia teachers union and the district, which issued more than 3,000 pink slips last week. About half went to teachers.

The union challenged the 1,500 teacher layoffs because the district exempted about 200 instructors who work in the superintendent's signature program to overhaul failing schools.

Ralph Teti, lawyer for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, contends the district violated the union contract by ignoring seniority in issuing pink slips. The exempted teachers have less seniority than other instructors who got layoff notices.

"We're not trying to block all the layoffs," Teti said, though he noted that "nobody's happy to see positions lost."

The district argues in court papers that the contract does not require seniority to be taken into account during layoffs. It also notes the schools undergoing overhauls, called Promise Academies, would lose between 46 percent and 80 percent of their teachers without the exemption. The schools have longer days and occasional weekend classes, making the positions harder to fill.

A Common Pleas Court judge stayed the layoffs pending a hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday. That proceeding was delayed after the state Supreme Court on Monday decided to review the case. The layoffs, scheduled to take effect July 1, remain on hold.

Monday's order from the high court came the same day that hundreds of teachers rallied against planned program cuts and job losses, then flooded a raucous school board meeting.

If the job cuts go through, it would be the largest teacher layoff in 30 years. Among the casualties would be 23-year-old Jenna Riley, who has taught first and second grade at Shawmont elementary school over the past 18 months. Targeting young teachers is unfair, she said.

"It upsets me that quality means nothing," Riley told The Associated Press while attending Monday's rally. "It doesn't matter how well you do, it's how long you've been there. And I think the system needs to change."

Much of the district's financial problem comes from a planned $292 million cut in state aid and a loss of federal stimulus money. Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed more than $1 billion in education cuts statewide, but lawmakers are still haggling over the budget. The fiscal year begins July 1.

Mayor Michael Nutter, a tireless advocate for education, has proposed new or increased taxes on soda, parking and property to generate up to $110 million for the district. He toured schools Tuesday even as opponents of the soda tax - which already failed once - planned to protest at City Hall.


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