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Pennsylvania Top Court Says Philadelphia Can't Cancel Teachers' Contract

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ended a long-running legal dispute between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the school district, ruling Monday that the school district cannot unilaterally cancel the teachers' union contract.  

The dispute goes back to October 2014, when the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the entity that runs the school system, called a special school board meeting and announced that it was cancelling the teachers' union contract and making changes to the union members' health benefits.

The district, then facing serious financial troubles, hoped to save $43.8 million that school year through the health benefit changes, and $198 million over a four-year period. Other unions had made similar concessions, the district said at the time. 

The move against the teachers' union came after the district went to court earlier that year to ask for a declaration that the district had the authority to make changes to work rules and work conditions. The court declined to issue that declaration.

A Commonwealth Court judge ruled in January 2015 that the district did not have such broad powers under Act 46, under which the School Reform Commission was created in 2001, or other state laws, to unilaterally cancel the collective bargaining agreement with its teachers and add new conditions.

The district appealed, leading to the state Supreme Court's ruling on Monday.

"This much-anticipated decision by the Supreme Court is a total and complete repudiation of the position taken by the SRC when it surreptitiously met in October of 2014 and adopted a resolution which purported to cancel the terms of the agreement with our union," Jerry Jordan, the union president, said in a statement on Monday.

"The costs to the taxpayers just in the sheer number of attorneys and law firms hired to advance this fruitless strategy is truly breathtaking," Jordan added. "It is time now for the District to negotiate a new contract with the PFT. Our educators and schoolchildren can't wait any longer."

The union represents teachers, nurses, secretaries, and counselors. Its last contract expired in August 2013.

The district argued that state law (the Distressed School Law) and various amendments to the state's school code gave the School Reform Commission the authority to make changes to contracts, including the teachers' union collective bargaining agreement, to deal with the fiscal uncertainty it was facing.

In the 24-page ruling issued Aug. 15, the five-member panel concluded that the teachers' union collective bargaining  agreements "are excepted from a school reform commission's cancellation powers."

A spokesman for the district told the local CBS affiliate that the district was disappointed with the ruling and that it hoped to reach new labor agreements with its unions soon. 

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