Due to the continuing negotiations between the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Association of Catholic Teachers, archdiocesan officials announced during a press conference today that high schools in the Archdiocese will be closed starting tomorrow, Sept. 14.

The only high school that will be open tomorrow is Archbishop Wood, which was closed one day last week due to flooding in the area.

“As of tomorrow we need to have the teachers back in the classroom and unfortunately we’re in a position we should not be in,” said Mary Rochford, archdiocesan superintendent of schools.

Rochford noted the schools have “successfully completed over the first five days of school the activities and programs that are necessary for our students to begin a new school year. We cannot bring a whole complement of students back with a modified staff. It’s not a safe environment.”

She added there has been ample time to settle the contract with the teachers’ union.

“Since our exchange of proposals in March, we had some great expectations that the contract needs to change so it advances the educational initiatives, objectives and programs that our students need,” Rochford said. “We continue to hold to them today. We are not going to be wavering from them. Our schools need to be excellent. Our schools need to be timely. Our schools need to be relevant for our children.”

Joining Rochford at the press conference was Theresa Ryan-Szott, archdiocesan director of secondary school personnel and lead negotiator for the Archdiocese, who noted that the talks have been moving at a “snail’s pace.”

“All summer long we got little or no proposals from the teachers union,” Ryan-Szott said. “Even this past week when we had to enter into negotiations after the strike vote, we had nine hours of negotiation on Sunday in which we never met face to face. That does not promote dialogue; it does not promote discussion.”

She added that the association demanded that lawyers be present for the negotiations, which caused further delays because the session did not begin until 5 p.m. last Friday. “To accommodate lawyers’ schedules, our teachers’ contract could not be negotiated,” Ryan-Szott said. “This is an affront to every teacher in the system and an affront to every parent and student.”

The question of whether to utilize mediation in the talks was raised during the press conference.

“We believe we know our students, our teachers, our parents and our schools better than any outsider,” Ryan-Szott said. “We are the ones who must sit at the table not lawyers we must sit at the table and negotiate the best contract for all the stakeholders.

“We are not going to get an outside person who doesn’t know our system and our schools and our teachers and our parents. No one knows them better than us. We need to dialogue at the table. We need face-to-face conversation.”

Ryan-Szott also clarified the role part-time teachers will fill in archdiocesan high schools, which is a concern for the teachers’ association.

“They are, in a sense, independent contractors that teach a limited number of sections that are usually enrichment courses or specialized electives,” she said. “This is a trumped up fear. Part-time teachers will never replace full-time teachers, and they receive no seniority whatsoever.

“We know we have a staffing ratio that is established by the number of students in the school vs. the number of faculty that are needed for that school. That ratio will never change.”

Rochford added that the high schools have been challenged to offer “a particular niche program that would be very beneficial to the students and certainly would be attracting students to our schools.”

She cited examples such as a pre-engineering program, an international studies program or a fine arts program.

“Right now we need our teachers to provide the core curriculum and that’s what they’re doing,” Rochford said. “But if I needed to hire someone to teach two periods of fine arts or a higher level of math or a specialized science program, that’s why we would need part-time teachers.”

Regarding the issue of hiring part-time teachers, Rochford said there are times when the association can file grievances with the Archdiocese, but not in this case.

“The proposal says part-time teachers will never replace full-time teachers,” she said. “Grieve away if we are doing that, but we are not doing that. That has been clearly noted to them through many discussions since April. To keep throwing that one out there is false advertising.”

Ryan-Szott and Rochford said the association has resisted several changes over the years, including an online grade management system that would require teachers to record all their grades online.

“For three years we could not get an online grade management system required for all teachers,” Ryan-Szott said. “For three years the association argued that it was a change in work conditions.”

She said parents would be able to access an online system to check on the status of their child’s progress, see what assignments are due and what assignments have been missed. “This online grading system has increased honors and decreased failures, and brought kids as partners into their own education,” Ryan-Szott said. “Parents feel more empowered. To me it was a no-brainer. This is 2011. We have tried for three years, and the association blocked it.”

The archdiocesan administrators said the association has stated that “this contract has been here for 43 years and has worked for 43 years.”

“What in this world works in the year 2011 and will extend into 2014 with no changes made to it? It’s not an educational contract, believe me,” Rochford said.

The administrators said the association has inflated the number of unresolved issues that need to be resolved. “We are probably down to five or six issues,” Ryan-Szott said. “Every time you make a change in one article or section, it’s going to create a change in about 20 other sections.

“We need a radical change in the contract if we are to survive.”

Ryan-Szott and Rochford reiterated the Archdiocese’s commitment to the negotiating process.

“We hope parents realize that we are working very hard so that our students are back in school, and that’s our greatest effort,” Rochford said. “I need the parents to know we’re fighting for your children. We are willing to work from 6 a.m. through the night. We don’t care what it takes, but we cannot be trapped under an agreement that has worked for 43 years and think our schools are going to remain on the cutting edge.”

Any days the students miss during the strike will be made up during the school year, Rochford added. “It could mean a longer school year, but we can reduce Christmas vacation, etc. We’ll be prepared to do what we need to do.”