Updated 8:45 p.m.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling that the School Reform Commission did not have the power to unilaterally cancel its collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The decision is a victory for the union in its ongoing battle with the SRC, primarily over benefits and working conditions for teachers. Members of the PFT have been working without a contract for nearly four years, and teachers haven’t had raises during that time.
The SRC claimed the right to cancel the contract under special powers granted by the state when it declared the District academically and financially distressed and took it over, installing the SRC in place of a nine-member Board of Education.
The decision appeared to rest on the fairly narrow grounds of what a “teachers’ contract” is – whether it refers to the individual contract signed by each teacher regarding their rights under tenure provisions that predate even the advent of collective bargaining or the collective bargaining agreement reached by a District and its unions.
The court sided with the PFT on that point – that the relevant law and case law support the interpretation that the phrase refers to collective bargaining agreements.
The School District issued a statement saying the SRC was "disappointed" and said it still has the goal to achieve "new and fair labor agreements with all of our unions in 2016."
“This is a total and complete repudiation of the position taken by the SRC when it surreptitiously met on Oct. 6, 2014, and passed a resolution to cancel the terms and conditions of the PFT contract,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan. “It means that the SRC has to honor the contract, and it’s my hope the SRC will return to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract with the PFT.”
At that meeting, when the District said it was facing a funding shortfall of $71 million the following year despite closing dozens of schools and eliminating thousands of jobs, the commission announced that it was restructuring teachers' health benefits to save $44 million. Commissioners said they would use the money to restore counselors, teacher aides, language classes and other services that had been drastically cut back.
The money would have come from requiring teachers to pay 13 percent toward their health benefit costs; under the “status quo” contract, most PFT members don’t contribute anything toward their health care.
It also sought to stop paying toward the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund, which provides vision, prescription, dental and other services to members and retirees.
At that time, negotiations with the PFT had gone on for some two years without any agreement. The last contract expired in 2012 and was extended for a year.
Since then, the two sides have blamed each other for the continuing failure to reach a deal.
The SRC also sought to change work rules, including those relating to teacher placement and transfer, which the union said would interfere with teachers’ seniority rights.
Under the status quo contract, all pay is frozen, including what teachers may be entitled to due to accruing seniority and education credits, said Jordan. The District also said the ruling has no financial impact.
“That’s why I want to get back to the table so we can negotiate a settlement,” he said. “PFT members are long, long, long overdue for a salary increase, particularly those who have had steps and lanes frozen for the last four years.”
The District statement said that there have been 'hundreds of hours of talks with the PFT directly and through a mediator over the last several years. We will continue to work to end our impasse so we can offer teachers a fair contract, one that includes work rules changes, and also reflects the fiscal reality of the School District’s projected future budget deficits."
Lack of a contract and uncertainty about ultimate pay scales are hindering teacher recruitment, Jordan said.
“We’re at the beginning of a teacher shortage and we’re not going to be able to attract new teachers to Philadelphia or retain teachers in schools,” he said. “People want to know what they’re going to be earning and depend upon getting the step increases that they’re promised when hired.”
Councilwoman Helen Gym, who was elected with the strong support of the PFT, issued a statement welcoming the ruling.
"Today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made clear that the School Reform Commission does not have the authority to unilaterally cancel the teachers' contract. I am relieved that an exorbitant and ultimately futile attempt to upend collective bargaining has come to a clear end. This major ruling reaffirms what teachers, parents, and students have said for years: our teachers are our partners and a fair contract is too long overdue. "