On Thursday afternoon, I sat down with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who very much wants the public to know that he's first and foremost an educator, that he values teachers, and that he does not want to drive anyone out of the district.
“We believe teachers are professionals, just like architects, lawyers, doctors,” Hite said. “We want a contract that reflects that. I truly believe that in order for teachers to be effective, there needs to be some flexibility and we need to treat them as professionals.”
Hite said he wants to clarify some misconceptions about what's out there about the proposal, which The Inquirer obtained and detailed this week. The contract of 10,000 teachers and 5,000 secretaries, nurses, counselors and other support staff expires in August.
That proposal calls for a 13 percent pay cut for those making over $55,000 and an end to seniority-based positions and to a guaranteed adequate supply of textbooks, among other provisions.
It infuriated teachers and PFT leaders, who said it seemed the district was attempting to penalize and drive out veteran educators. Many said they felt disrespected.
But Hite said that was the opposite of the district’s intention.
“We have a great deal of respect for what teachers do each and every day; we think that teachers are key to our strategy of improving educational outcomes for all of our students,” he said.
The superintendent said he would not neogtiate in public and declined to go into details on the financial terms of the proposal, beyond emphasizing the district’s dire fiscal situation, its projected $1 billion deficit over five years, etc.
"We're really trying to save this district," he said.
The proposal asks for salary reductions and benefits givebacks of 13 percent for those making $55,000 and above, but also increases teachers’ workdays, to eight hours. (They currently work a seven hour, four minute day.)
That’s just a recognition of what most teachers are already doing, Hite said.
“Many of our teachers work beyond eight hours — they work on weekends, they work nights, and they work on holidays. We value that. This is not a longer school day — this is more time to plan and collaborate,” he said.
Now, Hite said, for teachers to advance, they must move out of the classroom; the superintendent wants the new contract to help them progress in their careers while remaining in the classroom. “Distinguished” teachers should be paid accordingly, their classrooms used as models, and their experience used to help new and struggling teachers.
“We want more support for teachers,” Hite said.
As for provisions that call for an end to mandated water fountains, private rooms for nurses and counselors, and an adequate textbook supply, the superintendent was clear: “there is a difference in eliminating a provision and eliminating the thing that is being provided.”
Translation: the superintendent does not want to take away teachers' water fountains or desks or counselors' and nurses' right to private rooms to see their students.
When he was a teacher, his contract didn’t call for Hite to have chalk and a chalkboard, he said. But he had them; his district still had a responsibility to provide them, even though they weren’t spelled out.
“Many of those things are listed in our contract,” he said, pointing to a bound copy he keeps in his desk. “In terms of a professional contract, they have no business being there. Those are kind of ridiculous. In order for us to provide a high quality education, naturally we have to provide those things.”
What he wants, Hite said, is a “more modern document that speaks to the type of things that we think are really important, like growth and evaluation and development and teachers being part of the conversation.”
Flexibility is also key, he said.
Remove a class size maximum, a current proposal, helps with things like concurrent high school and college courses and “blended learning” opportunities — with a cap of 33 students, if 10 students at five district high schools wanted to take an Advanced Placement class, that would be difficult to achieve.