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Key issue in teachers’ contract dispute: Will old provisions remain in effect?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Paul Socolar and Dale Mezzacappa

Unable to close a deal in time for the Monday night union membership meeting, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will be back at the bargaining table with the School District on Tuesday, trying to hammer out an agreement that may still be far off.

Although the old teachers’ contract expired Saturday at midnight, the union maintains that those terms are still in place, which for now would mean no pay cuts for teachers who go back to their sparsely staffed schools on Tuesday — and no budget relief on the horizon for the District.

In a statement issued Monday evening, the District renewed its call for the PFT to accept salary reductions and "reasonable contributions to its health insurance costs."

Contract talks took place every day of the long holiday weekend. Both sides report some progress but aren’t providing details about the sticking points. According to PFT president Jerry Jordan, "You have to look at the entire package, and there are still several things that are unresolved."

The School District says it wants concessions totaling $103 million from the teachers (the equivalent of about $7,000 from each union member), and the mood of the leadership and thousands of members at Monday’s meeting was not at all receptive to that idea.

Asked what deadlines are in play, Jordan pointed out that previous agreements with his union dragged out for months. He said the last contract negotiations were concluded on Martin Luther King’s birthday, four and a half months after the contract expired.

Jordan said he hopes and believes that the District will not try to unilaterally enforce a new labor agreement.

District officials did waive contractual seniority rules in rehiring laid-off staff last month but have not said what they will do about teacher pay and benefits if no agreement is reached. The union is challenging the action on the seniority issue.

Does the School Reform Commission even have the right to impose contract terms on the PFT – and unilaterally cut teacher pay – if no contract agreement is reached?

Former District Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch told the Notebook that he doesn’t think so.

“If the SRC is going to take that position, they should cite where they get the authority,” Masch said.

Masch was a member of the Board of Education when it was disbanded, and subsequently became a member of the SRC before joining the Rendell administration as state budget secretary and then the District as its finance chief. He has been part of several contract negotiations in these various roles and said he heard several legal opinions on the issue of whether the District can impose its own terms.

Ultimately, he said, a judge or judges will have to interpret the state law – so-called Act 46, or the Distressed School Act – that gave the SRC power to run the District.

But he cited some relevant portions of the law, arguing primarily that the SRC had one shot to impose contract terms – in the contract right after it was formed. Because the SRC has repeatedly bargained with the PFT on issues such as salaries, benefits and the length of the school day, Masch said that it is arguable that it has forfeited its right to impose terms now, regardless of its financial bind.

The law says, “If upon the termination of a collective bargaining agreement in effect on the date of the declaration of distress under this section a new collective bargaining agreement has not been ratified, the School Reform Commission shall establish a personnel salary schedule to be used until a new agreement is ratified.”

“Once the SRC is created, the contract in effect expires,” Masch said. “If the union and District refuse to ratify a contract at that moment, the SRC can impose a pay plan. But it doesn’t say that it can do that at any subsequent time in the future.”

This ambiguity was apparently why SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos went to Harrisburg in June 2012 to seek an amendment from the legislature that would clarify this provision to make it less subject to interpretation. His attempt imploded when he didn’t inform city Democrats in the legislature before making his pitch in Harrisburg.

Masch said that it is important to note that teachers are under a different provision of state law than municipal employees, some of whom have worked for years without agreeing to a new contract.

But if the teachers continue to bargain, he said, “I think they can keep working, they can keep making proposals at the bargaining table. Then they’re not at an impasse. And if the District allows them to work, they have to pay them.”

Check back for updates on the PFT membership meeting and contract talks.

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