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Archdiocese High Schools Closed Indefinitely Through Strike

In a letter to parents, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia says it will have to close the schools Wednesday until an agreement is reached with the teachers.

If the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Local 1776, the union representing more than 700 Catholic high school teachers, cannot come to an agreement in regards to its contract negotiations, the Archdiocese says the schools will close indefinitely starting Wednesday.

"We are not able to bring the entire school population back into the building with reduced staffs since this would compromise the safety of the school and our students," a letter to parents, that is posted on the archdiocese's website, stated.

The teachers have been on strike for six days, and at a press conference Tuesday, Mary Rochford, superintendent of the archdiocese and Theresa Ryan-Szott, director of secondary school personnel and chief negotiator for the archdioceses, said the schools must close Wednesday because the modified staff cannot handle the regular schedule.

The school was able to open because it was performing its annual beginning of the year activities such as liturgies and distribution of the books. Assessments that are normally administered in March were moved to Monday and Tuesday to allow for the schools to remain open two additional days.

"We are in a position that we should not be in," Rochford said. "The contact needs to change so that it is there to advance educational initiatives, objects and programs that our students need. Our schools need to be excellent, timely and relevant for our children and we cannot work in a contract that ties our hands to that."

Although the letter went on to state that progress has been made in the negotiations process, Rita Schwartz, president of the teacher's union said she wasn't so sure.

"I'd say we've regressed," she said at a press conference Tuesday at the Association of Catholic Teacher's office on Sansom Street. "We still have 100 items to settle, and they're bringing new items to the table."

Schwartz said the teachers were concerned about the elimination of job security due to a number changes in the contract including hiring part-time teachers.

Although the union fears part-time teachers threaten full-time teachers' jobs, the archdiocese those teachers will teach specialized and elective courses.

"That is a trumped up fear," Ryan-Szott said. "It has been clearly noted that they will not replace full-time teachers."

Bringing on part time teachers will allow the diocese to increase its course offerings to possibly include fine arts classes, additional foreign languages and specialized math and sciences, Ryan-Szott said.

The archdiocese said that its main concern is its teachers' inability make contractual changes that will improve the schools' competitiveness.

"It's been a battle to change anything," Ryan-Szott said. "We need a radical change to the contract to remain viable."

Schwartz said the union is also concerned that the diocese will not agree to mediation, a course of action that the union has requested twice -- once before the strike and once since.

And it seems that the union isn't the only party pushing for mediation. In a letter dated Sept. 13, Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations encouraged both sides to start the mediation process immediately. He also stated in a letter that if the process began, he hoped that the teachers would return to the classroom and work under the old contract while a new one was hammered out.

"I understand that it is sometimes nearly impossible to negotiate in a spotlight like the one caused by striking teachers and a delayed school year," he wrote.

If the archdiocese were to agree with the proposal, Schwartz said she would recommend it to the teachers.

But the diocese continues to oppose that route.

"We know our teachers, parents and students better than anyone. We are not going to get an outside person involved," Ryan-Szott said of mediation. "What we need to have is a face-to-face conversation."

Both sides said they want a resolution and they want to get the teachers back into the classroom, but because the archdiocese is not governed by the state, there is no time limit on how long they could strike.

With a number of unknowns, both Rochford and Ryan-Szott made one thing clear: the archdiocese will make up the lost time.

Negotiations were scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday and, according to Schwartz, sessions are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

"Something's got to happen now," Schwartz said. "And we can't do it ourselves or we would have already."

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