A Conversation with PFT President Jerry Jordan

Apr 26, 2021 | Exclusives, Features, Stories

Teacher unions have been leading the efforts to ensure a safe return to the classroom in a post-COVID world. They have been on the frontlines spelling out what a safe environment means for their students and organizing for the resources necessary to achieve it. Across the country, we have seen teachers step up to meet the needs of this moment. Whether dealing with problems stemming from poverty, lack of access to social services, or inequitable funding, teachers intersect with the most important aspects of our communities. The pandemic has laid this bare. 

For the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, this enormous effort has coincided with an already existing environmental crisis facing Philadelphia Schools. The union has been leading through their Fund Our Facilities coalition a unique mix of elected officials, community organizations, and labor unions dedicated to ensuring Philadelphia public schools have the resources it needs for good, safe, and healthy schools. PA Spotlight Executive Director Eric Rosso recently sat down with President Jerry Jordan to discuss all of this and more on the day it was announced the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would take up a landmark fair funding lawsuit in the fall. 

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I watched your remarks from the event yesterday where you led with a famous quote from Fannie Lou Hamer about being sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m curious what drives your motivation to keep fighting every day for teachers and kids in the classroom, particularly in light of how the problems and opportunities that the Philadelphia School District has have compounded since the pandemic?

What motivates me most and number one is I’ve always loved kids and loved working with them. I know that education is just key for everyone to have a much better life. Philadelphia is the poorest, large urban city in the country. I think 26 percent of our families live in deep poverty. The only way you can break out of that is to provide and give the kids a great education where they are able to move from poverty into opulence. 

They will be able to get good jobs. They will be able to be trained well enough that they are able to switch jobs because they were taught these skills. It’s just key. I’ve seen it happen for so many people over the years. I think that is probably the best thing to fight for because you want to make sure that everyone is able to be a productive citizen. 

It has an impact on everything in the city. The issue of safety is improved as people are working and able to provide for their families. You’re not going to have the type of crime that we are seeing in this city and other places. It just leads to a much better society. 

According to your bio on AFT’s website, you began in 1987 as a staff representative for PFT. What made you originally decide to get involved in your union and what has your time in the labor movement advocating for members taught you in terms of how power works? 

I am a third-generation teacher in my family. I share that because I grew up here hearing stories about what happened in the schools in which my aunts taught at. I internalized it out of this conversation. As kids, we weren’t really allowed to stay in the same room as adults when they were having conversations, but our family like many used to engage in Sunday dinner. This was before stores were open on Sundays. You didn’t have the grocery store, the department store, the bars open on Sunday. I think it was called a blue law and I can’t tell you the origins of why it was called the blue law. 

Sundays were very, very quiet days and a custom for my family to go to church. After church, dinner was early. On Sunday, we got out around church at 1:00 pm or a little after. We had dinner shortly after we got home. My mother did a lot of cooking on Saturday so she didn’t have to cook from scratch on a Sunday.

We used to have family dinners and my aunts and uncles and cousins would be at somebody’s house. Sometimes it was ours, other times it was a relative’s home. That conversation would occur during dinner and as a kid, you can’t help but hear it. I remember hearing my aunts – to just tell you a couple brief stories that have always stuck with me. 

In those days, there was no union. People served at the will of the principal quite frankly. One story that I remember that really stuck with me was my aunt was shopping on a Saturday during the winter. She was shopping with a co-worker and they went downtown to a store. It was not an expensive store for sure. They were in the basement of the store shopping and ran into their principal. The principal fired my aunt’s friend on the spot because she was wearing slacks. That was not the type of attire he wanted the community to see teachers wearing. She was fired!

The teacher had no recourse. No voice. I remember thinking how unfair that was! As a child, it was cold! I knew how cold it had been. Why couldn’t she wear the pants?

Another story that I overheard was my one aunt taught at an elementary school. She was complaining about having to wash the white gloves. In those days, my aunt at that school and the teachers were involved in recess. They had to be involved in an activity with their class and was something they had to put on their lesson plan. They had to be engaged with their kids in the playground during recess, but the catcher was the teachers, who most were females, were expected to wear high heels, have a handbag on their arm, and wear white gloves and a hat. And be engaged! So, therefore, if you’re engaged with the kids with a basketball or are playing dodgeball the gloves are filthy by the time they finish recess. She was tired of washing gloves!

Lastly, another one that I remember was teachers did not make a lot of money. My one aunt had a principal that would have faculty meetings Friday afternoon after the kids were dismissed. In those days, you had to sit as long as the principal talked and you were dismissed. On this particular Friday, the city was going to get a large amount of snow. They held the faculty meeting and it was held inside the school auditorium where you couldn’t see outside. 

When they were finally released and after the principal spoke for an enormous amount of time – a substantial faculty meeting. The faculty was dismissed and they went out on the corner to wait for public transportation and it had snowed a lot. They had to suffer through this faculty meeting as long as the principal required it.

When I became active in the union – and became active because of those stories – and completed my student teaching here in Philadelphia, I signed up to be a substitute teacher because I graduated in May and became a substitute until the end of the year. When I became a sub, I had to do it in a building that I soon taught in. I knew who the building rep was and I went to Jerry Newman’s classroom – that was her name. I said, “Jerry I want to join the union,” and she gave me a card. I joined the union that very day. It was because of all of those stories that I heard about. My teaching experience was great and didn’t have anything to do with that but it’s because it was important to have a voice and the union was that voice. 

In recent years, there has been a tidal wave of support for teachers unions. We’ve seen popular uprisings across the country where teachers have participated in direct action, strikes, and advocacy efforts to raise awareness about conditions in the classroom. Many of these came in direct response to the wave of austerity politics that came at the state level in 2010 – something Philadelphia has experienced directly. How has this impacted your work in PFT and how are these conditions shaping your own advocacy efforts?

When you say ‘shaping your actions,’ I want to go back to the 90s when the state legislature passed Act 46 which was the takeover legislation of the Philadelphia School District. It sat on the books for quite a while. It was not used until 2000 I believe. That was because at the time the Superintendent of Public Schools Dave Hornbeck accused the state of not funding Philadelphia schools properly. The same thing we are facing to this day. David Hornbeck made it clear that he believed the policies were racist and discriminatory because of the district being a district with predominantly Black and Brown children. 

The reaction to David’s comments was the legislature passed the takeover legislation in six hours. From the House to the Senate to the Governor’s desk in six hours and it became law. They used it to hang over everyone’s heads in Philadelphia that they will take you over. It was until December 18th or 19th of December 1999 that the state actually took over the district.  

I point it out because the legislation that was passed turned Philadelphia into one of the early districts that was taken over. The legislature began passing legislation in order to change what was happening in public education in the country. With Act 46, not only was the district taken over but there were certain limitations on what the union could actively bargain on. There were a number of things that the law clearly stated that we were not able to negotiate it over – such as class sizes, teacher rosters for the workday. 

Under the takeover, the District had the ability to outsource many of the jobs that the union represented and many other services. We had no say over curriculum! It was just a laundry list that made nil the language we had in our contract. We had to figure out a way to continue to advocate for our members but do it within the framework of the new law. 

I go back that far because there has just been a series of legal changes that have occurred over the many years. Fast forward to 2014, the School Reform Commission voted to void our contract. That of course led to a huge fight all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Having to fight back knowing that Act 46 was still a law they were able to use, we fought it and went to Commonwealth Court. We chose to go to court as opposed to going on strike. That was something I knew that the School Reform Commission was pushing for us to go on strike.

Needless to say, our members were really angry and so was I! That was the worst day of my professional career. We had to make some decisions and be smart in the way that we made them. I talked with the members and met with our board and said let’s not go on strike. We were in the process of trying to negotiate a new contract and not progressing well because one of their first demands was for us to take a pay cut. That was not going to fly. 

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the fiscal problems that the District had at the time, but that was under the watchful eye of the School Reform Commission. Members who had not gotten a raise in a certain amount of years were not willing to be put in the position of taking a pay cut. We decided to go through the courts and we won.

We asked for an injunction because one of the things at the School Reform Commission also asked for at the time was to eliminate our health and welfare fund and change the benefits package. Our members who had a family plan were going to have to pay close to $800 a month for benefits. We asked for an injunction for a temporary restraining order. We were granted that. Bill Greene was the chair of the School Reform Commission. He and the commissioner appealed the ruling to Commonwealth Court. We went to Commonwealth Court months later and had to argue the case. We were successful when we argued in Commonwealth Court and once again, the School Reform Commission and the School Reform Commission Chair chose to appeal it to the Supreme Court

We ultimately argued the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme court. They ruled in our favor. While all of that was going on we were very active and we’ve always been a union active in the political arena. We work hard to get people elected who are good on public education. I want to be clear that the School Reform Commission was formed with members appointed by the governor and appointed by the mayor. The governor had the majority of the appointees on the commission.

We began working to make sure that we had a mayor and governor, among other positions so that when a commissioner’s term ended, whoever had the right to appoint a replacement would appoint the new commissioner. We got the arithmetic to work when we had Mayor Kenney elected and Governor Wolf. 

With the two of them working in their capacity, there were two or three openings at the same time. Going back to the takeover in Act 46, it said the only way you could disband the School Reform Commission is for the commissioners to vote themselves out of office. This is really striking if you think about it. You now run the operation and you will vote that you don’t want to do this anymore. They did.

The day that occurred we had a huge rally in front of (the school district in Philadelphia.) We were really excited for obvious reasons. This happened before the national attention that you saw with Red for Ed. We were wearing Red for Ed in Philadelphia and had that battle for a long, long time and a very serious battle. When you think in terms of ‘had the Pennsylvania Supreme Court not ruled in our favor,’ we would go back to days with conversations I just shared with you that my aunts were talking about with what happened in their schools. There would have been no contract if the Supreme Court ruled the School Reform Commission had the right to do that. We would go right back to those days.

We’ve been in the trenches of fighting for a long time. We’ve been able to keep our members engaged along the way. It’s been really challenging many times for our members and their families. During that period of time, we went six or seven years without a raise because of the fiscal problems caused by Governor Corbett and the cuts he made to public education – especially here in Philadelphia. We worked very hard to make him a one-term governor. He was very much involved when the School Reform Commission voted to nullify our contract. He was the Governor and he was part of it!

The Fund Our Facilities Coalition has existed in Philadelphia for some time now to raise awareness about the environmental hazards in the school district and demand the necessary revenue to fix those issues. As a member of the coalition, PA Spotlight has been struck by the unique nature of the coalition that allows dialogue between all of its members. It really feels holistic in that sense. Why was it important for PFT to bring this coalition of elected officials, community organizations, and progressive organizations together to continue the next fights in your advocacy efforts?

We recognize that in order to be effective you need to have partnerships and relationships with the community. Certainly, we have it with elected officials, but what happens is members of the community aren’t bought in as much as they would like to be. I realize that everyone can’t do everything, but there are others that want to help and be a part of what’s going on. The citizens of this city have schools in their neighborhoods. They are interested in what happens. Like us, they want good schools, safe schools, and healthy schools.

With the aging buildings that we have and send our kids into every day and spend all day in those buildings – you go into a classroom that is collecting water that’s dripping into the can because there obviously is a need for a new roof or at least for the leak to be repaired so it doesn’t come in. You start with a leak and if that’s not repaired, you’ll end up with a problem with plaster, your floor may get warped. You suddenly have a huge bill when you could have had a smaller bill when dealing with the initial cost. 

We have the neglect of maintenance of buildings for many, many years. As a result of it, it has caused the school not to function the way it could because you’ve had to move classes in order to deal with whatever the emergency is. At Palumbo (High School), no more than a year ago, we had ceiling tiles just come tumbling down because of what started as a leak and lack of maintenance. When they finally went to see why the ceiling tiles came down, it was a huge mess at this building, more than one classroom. It was because of that water gathered on the roof and no one went out to clean the drains that do the maintenance to make sure that wouldn’t happen. It became a big repair job that the district had to do.

We have found that working with partners to tell them what is going – and they want to know the truth. We tell them that what we have figured out is there is a need to deal with the aging infrastructure they have. We tell them there’s a need to talk about the amount of money. We are asking for about $200 million in order to just bring the schools up to a level of dealing with repairs of things that we can identify now. Knowing that there will need to be a lot more money where we have the need for the removal for asbestos. 

The little boy Dean Pagan, a first-grader who ate paint chips that fell on his desk in class and has now suffered some brain damage. That should never happen to a child! That we let lead paint in buildings that are just falling down! Kids are kids, they’ll eat anything. That should never happen. Lea DiRusso who is a veteran teacher with at almost 30 years in Meredith and Ebinger elementary schools only was diagnosed with mesothelioma. It absolutely broke all of our hearts. I happen to know her. She was a wonderful teacher and a great person. 

To know that our members and the kids go into these conditions every day and nothing is being done – those cases helped to motivate all of us. Because those stories were reported in the press, the members of the Fund Our Facilities coalition became more engaged. It’s real what’s happening and it’s real people who are affected by it. Before the pandemic, we had a number of schools that had to be closed on the discovery of asbestos. It may have been encapsulated at one point but is no longer. 

We’re fortunate to have Jerry Roseman who is an environmental scientist and has worked for us a number of years. He knows the physical conditions of buildings more than anyone in the city. He has gone into the buildings and knows all the problems. Another big story that was in the paper was the renovation of the Ben Franklin Science and Leadership Academy. They discovered asbestos. The buildings had to be closed and the schools had to be relocated. It’s just the magnitude of that problem and why it happened when it should have never happened. It’s just astonishing. That led a $15 million overrun in that project. 

The American Rescue Plan offers a significant amount of revenue for school districts across the country and particularly in Philadelphia. What does the passage of this bill into law mean for your members and for the schools they work in? How are you hoping this money gets spent in the city?

The passage of the bill is just an enormous contribution to the School District and the kids in this city and around the country quite frankly. It’s a lot of money, but it is money that is not recurring so therefore the District has to be very mindful of how it’s spent. At this time, PFT is surveying our members and members of the community asking them what do the members think, what do the members of the community think. How do they think the money should be spent?

These are everybody’s schools. There is a lot of knowledge in the teachers and other employees at the school building. They know those school buildings more than anyone else. They know what is needed. The parents who send their kids to school, they know what’s needed. They know what they want for their kids.

We are working on getting the results of the survey back and encouraging as many people as possible to answer the survey. We will make that public when we have completed it. What I want may not be the thing that my members want or what the parents or what the community wants. One of the things I believe that money should be spent for – and that is Jerry Jordan speaking and we will see what the results of the survey says. I will not impose my beliefs if it doesn’t show up. I believe that the conversation we just had about the facilities like I said the money is not recurring so the district has to be very wise in the way in which they spend it, but I think it would be a good investment to put a portion of the $1.2 billion that Philadelphia is getting into the maintenance of the buildings. Let’s clean out the asbestos in the schools we’ve identified problems with asbestos. Let’s deal with getting rid of the mold. Let’s deal with removing the lead paints from the rest of the schools that still have it. 

The district for the last three years identified a number of elementary schools and removed the lead paint. Those are the kind of things that need to be done so people will be safe and able to go into a healthy environment. Old buildings can be quite lovely, but they need to be safe. 

One of the things I find remarkable is how disconnected the conversation in Harrisburg often is from the needs of both urban and rural school districts, who often face the same problem when it comes to poverty. Is it frustrating to go to Harrisburg and advocate for Philadelphia – one of the biggest school districts – and see legislators unable to make this connection? 

It’s very frustrating. We share so many of the same problems and for whatever reason some legislators just hear the word Philadelphia – ‘it’s a black hole and we’re just throwing money away.’ No! It’s not a black hole and you’re not just throwing money away. If you look at the young people that we graduate who go on to have successful lives and go into careers which are very successful. I’m a product of the Philadelphia school system and I’m very proud to say that to be a member.

It just seems to be a negative for too many of the legislators. Speaking of Fund Our Facilities, we had the house policy committee come to Philadelphia. They met at Furness High School in September. Any number of the legislators came from various parts of the state. When they saw Furness High School – it was very hot and very humid that day. Furness is not air-conditioned. It’s an old building. The top floor can’t be used. There were just so many building problems. Some of them said, “This would not be allowed to exist in my district. The community would not allow it.”

We wanted them to see the conditions our kids are living in every day and that our educators are working in. A number of the people from suburban districts right around Philadelphia have never been in a Philadelphia school to see the reality it is we are talking about. It was an eye-opener for them. 

Our urban districts and rural districts have so much in common. They do not have a huge budget. The way funding for school districts occurs is through property taxes. In the rural districts, they are limited to the amount of money they can raise. In Philadelphia, we are limited because we don’t have the right to raise taxes. It has to be done by the City. I am hoping that with the fair funding lawsuit that will be before Commonwealth Court in September that – when looking at William Penn District, one of the districts in Lancaster, another one is Erie, Pottstown as well – the funding is not equitable. We all say the same thing! It really, really makes a difference.

Philadelphia is spending about $15,000 per student and I think Radnor is spending $24,000 per student. That is a big difference. We have class sizes up to 33. That’s a lot of money that goes into the classroom and makes a big difference for kids. When we look at Philadelphia, which is now down to two or three librarians in the entire system, there’s something wrong! When there’s not enough money for the schools to have and especially in our high schools where we are preparing kids to go to college. We’re preparing kids to research and do good research as opposed to junky, shotty research from Wikipedia. We need librarians to teach kids how to do that.

I think that those kinds of things need to be in every school, for every kid, in every kind of educational system – whether it’s suburban or rural or big cities. 

The lack of connection that often happens in Harrisburg baffles me for everything you just said. 

I think it has to do with party affiliation. We are seeing it in Washington D.C. every day. If you’re a ‘D’ you vote this way, if you’re an ‘R’ you vote this way. There are very few things that we can get together on. It just defies logic. 

Last question. Unions are receiving support at levels not seen since the 1960s. Active organizing drives in Amazon facilities and the pandemic have changed the nature of who essential workers are, and labor is waging an advocacy campaign for the PRO Act, which would overturn many of the anti-union regulations that make it hard for people to organize. Are you optimistic for a resurgence of membership and power for the labor movement given these dynamics? 

I am, but I will say that I’ve always been an optimistic person. We talked briefly about the worst day of my career, but even through that, the only way I got through it was being optimistic and really thinking carefully about what to do and how to do it to best benefit the members.

This pandemic has caused everyone to look at work differently. People who were quite comfortable with their livelihoods and lost them in too many cases made people think differently. People who have been fortunate to have a union job, in a great many cases, have been fortunate enough to hang onto them through the pandemic and make certain adjustments as needed.

The thing that struck me most and makes me really believe things are going to change is watching the citizens of the United States of America in food lines driving up to get a case of food put in their trunks for their families. I could not believe my eyes when I first saw the length of the lines on TV. These were productive citizens who were employed in probably a very happy middle-class job. To suddenly be in the food lines, it has to change your mindset about your life and about America. I know that many of us never expected to see that. We think of food lines for people who are unemployed. There are some people who really look down on people who need food stamps.

Suddenly millions of people in this country are in the same position. I just have to believe that your mindset changes when you have to stand in line in order to get food to feed your children. 

You know that voice that I talked about that a union offers – people want that. People want that voice to speak for them. 

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