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Pa. Supreme Court declines to rule on District's move to impose work rules

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declined to rule on whether the School Reform Commission has the absolute right to unilaterally impose work rules on the teachers' union in the absence of a contract.

The opinion offered no explanation for the decision. Chief Justice Ron Castille wrote a lengthy dissent, concluding that due to the District's dire financial position, the court was "duty-bound to engage in the review requested here." He was joined in the dissent by Justice Max Baer.

The non-decision favors the union, because it will make it easier for the union to file grievances and legal challenges to District actions that violate the terms of the expired contract. 

The SRC had asked the Supreme Court to definitively declare that certain noneconomic issues, including the use of seniority in teacher assignment and transfer, were not mandatory subjects of collective bargaining with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. And it asked the justices to do so under "exclusive jurisdiction" -- a way of skipping over the usual process of starting in a lower court and moving up through appeals.

The District has already taken actions in violation of the expired PFT contract, including assigning and laying off teachers without regard to seniority and raising class size. Negotiations with the union have been going on for more than a year without reaching agreement. The last contract expired in August.

In a joint statement, Superintendent William Hite and SRC Chairman William Green said that they were "disappointed" with the decision.

“The District's financial challenges reinforce the need for basic changes – essential changes – around school staffing, including layoff and recall," the statement said.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said he was "extremely pleased."

"We are pleased because it affirms the right of our members to collectively bargain to achieve an agreement," Jordan said. 

The District had asked the court to affirm that certain things did not have to be bargained, including the use of seniority in teacher placement and transfers, control of daily preparation periods, class-size limits, and requirements around whether there must be counselors and nurses in every school. 

The law under which the state took over governance of the District -- the Distressed School District Law, now part the school code -- places limits on what must be bargained, exempting many work rules and practices that had traditionally been negotiated.

It says that the only mandatory subjects of bargaining are wages, hours, and working conditions.

The takeover law also provided for the District to directly petition to the Supreme Court as a way to more quickly resolve disputes.

In his dissent, Castille explained that "a declaration to that effect by this Court would guide the ongoing collective bargaining process, including informing the parties what issues the SRC could act upon unilaterally while collective bargaining was proceeding."

The dispute over work rules -- along with the District's demands for teachers to take a pay cut -- has been one of the major sticking points in the stalled negotiations, 

Hite and Green said in their statement that they "continue to believe that the Distressed School District Law authorizes these reforms and that we have a responsibility to our students to remove learning obstructions." They also emphasized that the decision is not on the merits of their petition on the extent of the SRC's authority.

Still, it will "lengthen the time for resolving important legal issues and obtaining needed clarity for planning and implementation purposes." 

Despite the court's action, Hite and Green said that the District "will not back away from our efforts to achieve important reforms and to use our authority under the Distressed School District Law for this purpose."

“The District's financial challenges reinforce the need for basic changes – essential changes – around school staffing, including layoff and recall. If the School District cannot make vital decisions about the quality of education for our students, we will face even greater challenges in allocating resources and providing our students with the excellent education they deserve.”

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.