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Despite Financial Woes, Philadelphia Can't Overrule Teachers' Contract, Judge Rules

By guest blogger Denisa Superville

This post originally appeared on the District Dossier blog.

A Pennsylvania judge has ruled that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which runs the city's public schools, does not have the authority to unilaterally cancel the teachers' union contract and impose new terms.

Judge Patricia A. McCullough issued a permanent injunction against the school district on Thursday, barring it from implementing a policy that would have required members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to pay toward their health benefits.

In the ruling, McCullough said that nothing—whether implied or specific—in the state's legislative history on collective bargaining or the statutes that the SRC cited in its arguments granted the commission the authority to unilaterally cancel the contract and impose new terms.

(The judge even questioned whether the SRC did in fact "cancel" the contract since it only made changes to the agreement and did not end its relationship with the teachers' union.)

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which also represents school nurses, said the ruling was confirmation of the union members' belief that the SRC's action was "an unjust and blatant violation."

Jerry Jordan, the PFT president, said the ruling was a victory for collective bargaining rights "and the notion that contracts between parties should be negotiated and not imposed."

"The PFT is calling on the school district to immediately resume bargaining sessions with the union," Jordan said in a statement. "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."

SRC Chairman William Green said he was disappointed.

"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," Green said in a statement issued by the district.

Green made it clear on Twitter that he thinks the ruling could spell more financial doom for the district.

The district has not yet made a call on whether to appeal.

Thursday's ruling was a blow to the School Reform Commission, which had banked on saving nearly $50 million a year and more than $198 million over the next four years from the contract changes it voted to impose in a hastily called meeting last October. The SRC's abrupt action set off a firestorm of criticism and angst, particularly from labor watchers who feared the vote was the latest in recent attempts to roll back unionized workers' benefits.

The changes called for union members to pay between $27 to $71 from each paycheck towards their health benefits, the district said at the time. The changes were expected to go into effect on Dec. 15, but the union won a temporary injunction to block the SRC from taking those actions. Thursday's ruling makes the injunction permanent.  

The Oct. 6 resolution also included a per diem rate for substitute teachers and eliminated contributions to the union's legal fund. 

The union's contract with the district expired in 2013. The two parties had been negotiating for the previous 21 months and had met in more than 120 bargaining sessions, but an impasse had not been declared—a point the judge emphasized in the ruling.

"It is only upon reaching an impasse that an employer may make unilateral changes to a CBA,"  the judge wrote.

The commission said at the time that it was taking the steps because of the dire financial conditions the district faced, and Judge McCullough noted in the ruling the district's financial predicament and the steps that both the district and its employees have taken over the years.

But she drew a line:

"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, i.e., unilaterally imposing upon the PFT new economic terms and conditions of employment under an expired CBA when neither of the parties contend that an impasse exists and such has not been raised as an issue before this Court. The requisite authority of the SRC to cancel a CBA and unilaterally impose new terms and conditions of employment is not present in the relevant statutory provisions discussed above..."

If the SRC wants the ability to unilaterally cancel contracts in the absence of an impasse, it should ask the legislature for the authority to do so, McCullough wrote.

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