Teacher Contracts Saved From Cost-Cutting Move

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Dire financial straits at the Philadelphia school district do not justify canceling contract-protected teacher benefits, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled.
     State officials designated Philadelphia’s public schools distressed in 2001 and created the School Reform Commission to save the district from certain financial ruin.
     In negotiating cost-cutting union contracts over the years, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says it willingly made various concessions to employee pensions and health care plans.
     But the union went to court in 2014 when the commission unilaterally adopted a resolution that purported to cancel the most recent collective bargaining agreement with district teachers.
     The commission predicted that modifying the “economic terms and conditions for employees in the bargaining units represented by the [union]” … would save about $44 million in 2014 through 2015 and $198 million over four years.
     A judge quickly enjoined the maneuver, and the commission appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court when the Commonwealth Court affirmed last year.
     Predicting a $71 million funding shortage for the district in the coming year, the commission called its actions unavoidable and “eminently reasonable.”
     “The ability to hire enough staff, to keep the schools clean and safe, to buy books and other school supplies and [to] offer sports, art, music and other essential programs … must take precedence of the private interests of unions and their members in retaining a health benefits package so generous that it has become all but extinct in the marketplace,” the commission told the state Supreme Court in its brief.
     Philadelphia’s teachers agreed about the importance of student interests but questioned how well impairing collective bargaining serves these needs — especially in light of the substantial concessions their ranks have already made.
     Writing for the unanimous state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor agreed with the union that “teachers’ contracts” are exempt from a school-reform commission’s cancellation powers.
     The 24-page opinion says it is of particular relevance that Pennsylvania’s Distressed Schools Law affords rehabilitative commissions the authority to “cancel or to renegotiate any contract other than teachers’ contracts to which the board or school district is a party, if such cancellation or renegotiation will effect needed economies in the operations of the district’s schools.”
     Saylor found that “the clear intent [behind the Distressed Schools Law] was to protect the core relationship establishing terms and conditions for teachers’ employment.”
     Last year’s ruling by the commonwealth court said the Distressed Schools Law “clearly conveys that distressed first-class school districts shall engage in collective bargaining,” subject to defined exceptions, but “does not give the SRC the right to cancel a [collective bargaining agreement] or unilaterally impose new terms.”
     Representatives for the Philadelphia School District did not return a request for comment.
     In adopting the unsuccessful resolution, the commission had noted that the district’s efforts to weather its financial crisis included “dozens of school closures, thousands of employee layoffs, a prolonged freeze on charter-school expansion, and substantial wage and benefit concessions from employee organizations.”
     Justices Max Baer, Debra McCloskey Todd, Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty and David Wecht concurred in Monday’s ruling.
     The court’s seventh member, Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, only joined the court last month, missing the hearing on this case in May.

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