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School District lacked authority to cancel teachers’ contract, court rules

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

Your browser does not support the audio tag. Updated | 6:30 p.m.

In a decision Thursday morning, Commonwealth Court ruled that the School District of Philadelphia lacked the authority to cancel the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract when the School Reform Commission voted last fall to do so and to impose new health care terms on the union.

The ruling, a victory for the PFT, bars the District from restructuring the collective bargaining agreement between the teachers’ union and the School District and sends the issues back to the negotiating table.

"This Court is cognizant of the dire financial situation which the District currently faces and the SRC’s extensive efforts to achieve the overall goal of properly and adequately meeting the educational needs of the students," said Judge Patricia A. McCullough, who wrote the court’s opinion.

"However, despite these earnest efforts by the SRC, we cannot find that the legislature has provided the means expressly required to pursue the current path chosen by the SRC."

The judge said that despite special powers granted to the SRC under the state takeover law, elements of state labor law still apply to the District and the union. The state’s Public Employee Relations Act "requires mandatory bargaining over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, including the issues herein related to health care coverage, substitute teacher per diem rate, legal fund contributions, sick leave, short-term disability leave, and termination pay benefits," the decision says.

Update, 6:30 p.m. The decision also noted that during oral argument, the SRC conceded that "even after 21 months of negotiations and more than 120 formal bargaining sessions between the SRC and 23 PFT, the parties had not reached a point of impasse. It is only upon reaching an impasse that an employer may make unilateral changes to a [collective bargaining agreement].” End update

On Oct. 6, the SRC voted to terminate the teachers’ contract and unilaterally impose new health care provisions on the union’s 10,000 members. At the time, District officials said the changes would allow $50 million to be injected into severely underfunded schools.

District officials have said that if the health care changes are reversed, the budget gap for next school year will grow from $30 million to $80 million.

School Reform Commission Chair Bill Green, reacting to the news on Twitter, called the decision "disappointing news." Reminding people of the coming deficit, he asked "those cheering this decision" to "show me the money."

Update, 1:11 p.m. The School District has responded with a statement from Green, who said the District is reviewing its next steps:

We’re obviously disappointed with the decision. We continue to believe that the SRC had clear statutory authority for its action and was exercising one of the core functions for which it was created: seeking to achieve financial stability for the District amid a crisis of underfunding that prevents our schools from providing basic resources and services to students.

We are reviewing the court ruling and will shortly determine next steps that best serve Philadelphia schools and school children.

Update, 1:25 p.m. PFT President Jerry Jordan released the following statement claiming victory for collective bargaining and calling on the District to resume negotiations.

The PA Commonwealth Court today handed down a decision that affirms what we have been saying for months: The School Reform Commission’s move last October to unilaterally cancel the PFT contract was an unjust and blatant violation. Today’s decision is a victory for collective bargaining and the notion that contracts between parties should be negotiated, not imposed.

The PFT is calling on the school district to immediately resume bargaining sessions with the union. It’s time to redirect the energy and resources wasted on litigation to negotiating a contract that will ensure our schoolchildren and educators are given the best possible tools for teaching and learning.

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