Op-Ed: Contract Secrecy Plagues Public Schools

Note: This commentary was originally published by The Phildelphia Inquirer.

“I have a question!”

Teachers may encourage this kind of eager inquiry from students, but the questions raised by the recently finalized Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) labor contract are far less welcome.

Will the School District of Philadelphia lay off teachers to pay for new benefits? Will students face larger class sizes because of acute teacher shortages? Will taxes be raised on Philadelphians? Will non-Philly residents be forced to bail out the district for a contract it cannot afford?

These are pertinent questions, but here’s one underlying them all: Why are Philadelphians learning about the substance of this agreement only after its ratification?

For more than four years, taxpayers were kept in the dark, only to be slipped a $395 million bill—along with the admission that there’s no way to pay for it—at the 11th hour.

These secret negotiations between the PFT and School District of Philadelphia underscore the urgent need for collective bargaining transparency.

Pennsylvania might boast about its Sunshine Act or Right-to-Know law, but these laws exempt government union contract negotiations—sealing them from public view and denying Pennsylvanians’ right to know how the government decides to spend their money.

When government unions like the PFT negotiate for pay and benefits, billions of your tax dollars—both now and in the future—are at stake. There’s no question taxpayers should have a say before they’re obligated to foot the bill.

In the final days before the PFT contract was approved, mere rumors emerged regarding salaries, health care, and work rules. Even now, most of the major provisions remain a mystery.

For example, does the new contract continue the “ghost teacher” provision that lets union leaders take teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for the PFT while staying on district payroll, gaining seniority, and accruing pension credit?

The PFT’s previous contract authorized up to 63 of these ghost teachers. And since PFT President Jerry Jordan himself is a ghost teacher—and has been for 30 years—he would likely ensure the new contract protects this backroom deal. 


Pennsylvanians deserved to know—before the agreement was finalized—whether ghost teachers will continue haunting Philadelphia schools.

James Paul

What’s more, because seniority dictates teacher layoffs and recalls, Philadelphia ghost teachers like Jordan are unfairly protected over classroom teachers with less seniority.

Given predictions that the new contract will lead to layoffs, any ghost teacher provision should concern all district employees. Pennsylvanians deserved to know—before the agreement was finalized—whether ghost teachers will continue haunting Philadelphia schools.

Fortunately, transparency that will shine light on secret negotiations is on the horizon.

SB 168, sponsored by Sen. Pat Stefano, requires online access to proposed labor contracts for all levels of government. Specifically, it calls for tentative agreements to be posted online two weeks prior to and thirty days following the signing of a contract. 

This bill follows the spirit of last year’s Act 15, which directs the Independent Fiscal Office to prepare cost estimates of state employee contracts before they are ratified.  

While Act 15 was a critical first step, lawmakers must go further by applying the same principle to school districts and making the collective bargaining process transparent to taxpayers.

That’s where Sen. Ryan Aument’s SB 503 and Sen. Scott Martin’s SB 504 come into play. These bills subject contract negotiations to Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act and Right-to-Know law, respectively.

Despite shouldering the costs of government union contracts, taxpayers across the commonwealth remain shut out of the negotiation process—as evidenced by the PFT’s most recent agreement.

Only now, with the dotted line signed, will taxpayers begin to learn exactly what is costing them an additional $395 million over five years. How to pay this bill remains a question mark—which should be a huge wake-up call to Philadelphians and all Pennsylvanians.

No longer can we allow multi-million dollar contracts to be hammered out in secret. Shining light on collective bargaining will ensure contracts are fair to public employees and taxpayers alike.

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James Paul is a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation.