The new academic year has ground to a halt for Roman Catholic high schools in the Philadelphia area, where on Tuesday the archdiocese called off classes for about 16,500 students because of a teachers strike.
The work stoppage is now entering its second week as bargaining between the teachers union and school system has stalled largely over issues of job security and working conditions.
"We don't want the children out of school," Superintendent Mary Rochford said at a news conference. "But we cannot be giving them an education that is not all that it can be."
The local chapter of the Association of Catholic Teachers overwhelmingly rejected the system's contract proposal last week and began its strike Sept. 6.
Members oppose provisions regarding sick leave, the planned use of part-time instructors and the displacement of teachers affected by school closings, union president Rita Schwartz said. It's not about wages and benefits, she said.
"The archdiocese wants to strip our teachers of their job security and their future as teachers," Schwartz told reporters on Tuesday.
The 17 archdiocesan high schools began classes last week despite the strike because students were mainly involved in orientation activities. But system officials said Tuesday that continued reduced staffing could jeopardize student safety as actual classes were set to begin.
Parents were notified Tuesday that 16 schools will close starting Wednesday; the 17th school will close beginning Thursday because it has already missed a day due to inclement weather.
Jamie DelVishio, parent of a senior at Hallahan High School in Philadelphia, said she hasn't been following the dispute closely but is "happy to see that it's not over salary." Her biggest questions concern whether the sports program will continue _ her daughter plays varsity soccer _ and whether a prolonged school closure could affect students' transcripts.
"Where does that put them with all those college preparation things?" DelVishio said.
System officials said union resistance is preventing them from modernizing the schools and instituting innovations such as online grading. They noted part-time instructors would be used for niche classes _ such as engineering, robotics and Mandarin _ and not core subjects.
The most recent contract, which covers more than 700 teachers, expired Aug. 31. Bargaining has been ongoing since March but has been moving "at a snail's pace" because of union foot-dragging, said Theresa Ryan-Szott, chief negotiator for the archdiocese.
The union, though, has asked for mediation twice _ a request rejected by the archdiocese both times.
"We believe that we know our students, our teachers, our parents and our schools better than any outsider," Ryan-Szott said.
Negotiations resumed Tuesday afternoon, hours after Philadelphia AFL-CIO president Patrick Eiding suggested in a letter to both parties that teachers return to work under the old contract pending mediation.
Schwartz said the idea "sounds like a win-win to me," but the archdiocese on Tuesday evening again refused third-party intervention.
The union previously struck over wages and benefits for about two weeks in 2003; students missed six days of school. At that time, the archdiocese had 22 high schools serving 23,300 students.
Catholic schools: http://www.catholicschools-phl.org/2011/
Teachers union: http://www.act1776.com