Commonwealth Court to look at teacher contract cancellation

 

Can the Philadelphia School Reform Commission cancel union contracts? The question now rests in the hands of Commonwealth Court.

As a result of an agreement reached in the last week, a Common Pleas Court judge has permanently enjoined the Philadelphia School District from unilaterally canceling its teachers' contract. The district immediately appealed the decision.

Both sides called the order a victory Tuesday: District officials said it was a fast track to Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, the venue it prefers, widely viewed as more favorable to the SRC's viewpoint.

And the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said the lower-court decision halted changes planned for its 11,200 members' health benefits Dec. 15 and shifted the burden of proof to the district, providing another opening for a negotiated settlement.

"We're very pleased with the court's decision," PFT president Jerry Jordan said. "I just view this as an opportunity for both parties to sit down at the table."

Union leaders blasted the district for wasting "so much time and money trying to litigate its way out of honoring the PFT contract."

But district spokesman Fernando Gallard said the ruling was "a great step" that allowed the court to "quickly move forward to consider the key issue here - whether the School Reform Commission has the powers to cancel the contract and implement benefits changes."

The PFT, as a result of the order, agreed to put on hold the unfair-labor-practices charges it filed with the state Labor Relations Board and its request for expedited arbitration.

Oral arguments will likely be scheduled for December in Commonwealth Court, which is considered a quick turnaround for that appellate court.

District officials said they also wanted a negotiated settlement, but made it clear they were looking to the courts to rule first, and gave no indication that a resumption of talks was imminent.

The contract of the district's largest union expired in August 2013. The last of more than 100 bargaining sessions was held in July.

The PFT has said it put more than $24 million in savings on the table, a number the district disputed. The school system said that the union offered little recurring savings and that it needed a long-term solution, not a short-term fix, to a structural problem.

The SRC exercised its nuclear option Oct. 6, asserting that state law gave it the right to cancel contracts and impose terms on unions. It ordered the 11,200 members of the PFT to begin paying a portion of their health care costs Dec. 15. It said the changes would save the district $54 million annually.

It's not clear whether the SRC has the legal clearance to make the move. In recent years, its members have privately told lawmakers that they needed firmer legal authority to cancel contracts, and have attempted to get legislation passed to do so.

Ralph Teti, an attorney for the PFT, said Common Pleas Court Judge Nina Wright Padilla's order, issued late Monday, meant that the "lay of the land has changed" for both sides.

"The presumption is that the trial court acted properly," Teti said. "It's up to the School District to come up with an argument that the order ought to be reversed."

It's too soon to tell how much the delay would cost the district. It has already released to schools $15 million of its presumed savings, and had planned on distributing additional cash to schools in the coming months.

Officials estimate the district loses $300,000 for every day it must pay for teacher benefits under the PFT Health and Welfare Fund setup.

The district wants teachers, counselors, secretaries, and others to begin paying monthly fees of from $28 (for a single employee earning less than $25,000 annually who opts for basic coverage) to $678 (for an employee earning more than $55,000 a year who needs family coverage, buys a more expensive plan, and pays a surcharge for not taking a spouse's insurance).

"It's too early to say how this will affect the savings," Gallard said, "but it will affect the savings."

Commonwealth Court's actions will be carefully watched. This month, more than 3,000 PFT supporters shut down North Broad Street at a huge anti-SRC rally. City labor leaders have threatened a general strike if the court ruling does not go in the teachers' favor.