By William Snider
Washington--Acting on the first day of its 1989-90 term, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide whether employees at schools run by the Defense Department have the right to bargain collectively on salary issues.
The case accepted for review by the Court, Fort Stewart Schools v. Federal Labor Relations Authority (Case No. 89-65), could determine the bargaining status of some 735 teachers and teacher aides at schools run by the Army on five domestic bases and 110 teachers at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
Teachers at four other domestic military bases are not currently organized, and a ruling in the case would not affect teachers at military bases abroad, the Fort Stewart Association of Educators argues in its brief in the case.
But lawyers for the government maintain that the suit filed by the teachers’ union at the Georgia Army base could affect some 40 categories of federal employees whose wages are not set by statute.
At issue is a clause in the Federal Service Labor Management Relations Act of 1978 that allows certain federal employees to negotiate with their employers over “working conditions.”
The Army has consistently maintained that salaries and monetary fringe benefits are not negotiable because they are covered in another clause of the law that allows federal agencies to retain the right to set their own budgets.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority, however, has ruled in this and other cases that the Congress intended to include wages in the definition of working conditions.
At least three similar cases are working their way through the federal courts. Recent decisions by appeals courts in the cases are divided.
The Army operates two elementary schools at Fort Stewart for depen4dents of employees living on the base.
In 1986, the Fort Stewart Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, requested negotiations on a proposed 13.5 percent salary increase and on a variety of fringe-benefit proposals.
After Army officials refused to negotiate, the fsae filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which ruled that the union had the right to negotiate over those issues.
After the Army appealed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in a ruling issued last November, also sided with the claims of the fsae
In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, the Army argued that allowing the union to negotiate on salaries and other financial issues would violate the base commander’s prerogative to make decisions about the base’s budget.
The Army also contends that the base is in compliance with an Army regulation that requires teachers at schools on its bases to be compensated on a salary schedule comparable to those of similar public schools in the state.
But the fsae and the labor-relations authority argue that the 11th Circuit Court’s opinion should be upheld to give federally employed teachers a meaningful right to bargain with their employers.
In other action last week, the Justices declined to hear the following education-related cases:
- Chicago Title Insurance Company v. Tucson Unified School District (No. 88-2050). The Court let stand a federal appellate decision that school officials in two Arizona districts are free to sue companies that allegedly fixed prices for title-search and examination services.
The Phoenix and Tuscon school districts are seeking additional damages beyond those agreed to in a court-approved settlement of a case that involved school districts in 13 states.
- Merril v. August (No. 88-2120). The Court’s action lets stand a California Supreme Court ruling that a school employee cannot be demoted for criticizing his superiors.
According to papers filed with the High Court, Boyer August, while serving as dean of boys at San Ramon High School in Danville, Calif., was an outspoken advocate for students referred to him for disciplinary reasons. He frequently criticized teachers and the school’s principal.
The principal, in a decision later upheld by the school board, demoted Mr. August to a teaching position on grounds that his activities were disruptive to morale and the school’s effective operation.
Mr. August challenged the decision in the state courts, which upheld his contention that the demotion violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
- Camer v. Seattle School District No. 1 (No. 88-1982). The Justices let stand a Washington State appeals-court decision dismissing an “education malpractice” lawsuit filed by the parent of a Seattle public-school student.
Dorothy Camer charged that the Seattle district had failed to provide her daughter with important components of the curriculum required under state law, including lessons on the state constitution. She also claimed that depriving her daughter of “essential elements of a basic education” violated the girl’s right to due process under the 14th Amendment.
Noting that Ms. Camer had already lost two similar lawsuits, a state appellate court dismissed the case, saying that the same claims could not be retried. The state’s high court refused to hear an appeal.
In an earlier decision in the case, a state judge had ruled that schools “do not have a duty to ensure that every student will be able to achieve every benchmark.”
- Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (No. 89-94). In this case, the Washington State Supreme Court denied state financial aid to a blind student who wished to train for a religious career.
In an earlier phase of the case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that such aid would not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against state establishment of religion.
The case was returned to the state supreme court, which ruled that providing the student with aid would violate the state constitution’s stricter prohibition against church-state entanglement.
- Berklee College of Music v. Massachusetts Federation of Teachers (No. 88-1828). The Justices let stand a federal appellate ruling that an arbitrator may set aside “vague” provisions of a collective-bargaining agreement.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the decision of an arbitrator to continue hearing a complaint that was filed by the union after the expiration of a 10-day limit.
The appellate decision said that the language of the collective-bargaining agreement had failed to indicate that grievances filed after the deadline would be automatically dismissed.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as High Court To Decide Bargaining Status Of Employees at Military-Base Schools