by Eric Mayes - The Philadelphia Tribune

Local School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman launched a publicity blitz this week as she continued to joust with teachers heading into contract negotiations.

The disagreement stems from Ackerman’s plan to reform the district often in ways that butt up against long-standing traditions and union rules that Ackerman said were peculiar to Philadelphia.

Ackerman laid out her plans to help turn the district around recently at a Tribune editorial board meeting.

The plan was unveiled earlier this year and details have been emerging since. Several provisions have raised questions, but Ackerman has defended them saying they were needed to turn around a district where nearly half of the schools are struggling.

Three of her initiatives involve concepts designed to help the district keep and attract teachers.

“The goal is to create a school district through performance pay, through conditions that say we want you here and will support and they will come,” she said.

In one of her initiatives, the superintendent has suggested spending $6.2 million in bonuses for teachers who work in “hard to fill” positions. The money is essential, Ackerman said, because of union rules that govern the deployment of teachers.

“We don’t have teachers of color,” she said. “We don’t have enough science teachers. We don’t have math teachers. We don’t have enough teachers who teach special ed and we don’t have enough teachers who teach English as a second language. How do you get them? You have to offer them incentives.”

Under current union rules, teachers can choose their schools according to seniority.

“If I can’t transfer a teacher at will,” Ackerman said. “I have to get them another way — and one of them is to offer them bonuses.”

A second proposal would dedicate $250,000 to hire more minority teachers.

“I think we need more people of color,” Ackerman said. “The need to get African American, especially African-American males into our school system is long overdue.”

The superintendent said about 80 percent of the district’s students are minorities. That breaks down to 65 percent African American, 12 percent Latino another 5 percent or so are another ethnicity.

“And we only have 28 percent of our teaching population that is comprised of people of color,” she said. “Five-percent Asian or Latino which leaves about 23 percent African American and very few African-American males.”

That creates a culture gap between teachers and staff.

“It’s important that you populate the staff with people who look like them. We understand the culture,” said Ackerman, who is African American. “We act as role models and as a bridge not only for students, but for teachers.”

But attracting new teachers is difficult.

“Those bonuses and everything else we put into place helps them make that choice,” she said.

Another initiative would spend $915,000 to hire and train teachers from the New Teacher Project.

Again Ackerman pointed to a lack of teachers in arguing for the allocation.

“Last year, we were 160-some teachers short and even with the New Teacher Project and Teach for America until we put these other things in place and can predict with almost certainty how is going to retire who is not coming back we have to use the New Teacher’s Project or we’ll have even fewer teachers,” she said.

The district recently tried to get teachers to sign individual contracts that, in part, would have required them to give 60-days notice before leaving the district. The union resisted, but Ackerman said state law requires them.

“There’s clause there that says you have to give the district 60 days notice before you leave the school district or you lose your [teaching] license,” she said.

But by tradition, Philadelphia teachers have not signed them. It’s time, she said.

“Last year we had almost 1,000 teachers leave the school district,” Ackerman said, that was from a total of about 11,000 teachers. “They left. We didn’t know they were leaving. They didn’t give us any notice.”

It’s something she said the district will insist on.

“I have to have a contract because it’s the law,” Ackerman said.

Yet, a fourth initiative in Ackerman’s plan is a proposal to reconstruct underperforming schools. That too has been met with resistance from the union. The schools, called Renaissance Schools, would be restructured, some turned into charter schools — under district supervision. The list of schools is being compiled.

That work is being done by Leroy Nunnery, who was once a candidate for Ackerman’s post.

“He’s designing a process of how we look at those schools,” she said. “He’s going to do that with a community advisory board.”

But, the work has not started.

“We’re waiting on test scores to come,” she said.

Though many of the proposals in the superintendent’s plan have raised concerns or objections, the plan is simply common sense, according to Ackerman.

“I want the community and the broader public to understand what we’re fighting for,” she said.