The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled against the School Reform Commission, the board in charge of overseeing Philadelphia schools, in a case stemming from a 2014 decision by that body to unilaterally cancel teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement.
The SRC was founded in 2001 to turnaround the district, which had long struggled academically and financially. This was three years after the Pennsylvania General Assembly crafted a bill, called Act 46, that would allow the state secretary of education to declare a school district in “distress,” and replace its school board with a five-member “School Reform Commission.” The new board was given special powers under the state’s constitution. But today, the justices unanimously ruled that when the SRC cancelled its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and altered members’ healthcare benefits it had overstepped the bounds of those extraordinary powers.
According to state law, the SRC can “cancel or renegotiate any contract other than teachers’ contracts to which the board or the school district is a party, if such cancellation or renegotiation of contract will effect needed economies in the operation of the district’s schools.”
The district’s lawyers argued that collective-bargaining agreements weren’t teachers’ contracts, but instead defined teachers’ contracts more narrowly as the individual contracts that the school district has with each teacher. Three Pennsylvania courts have now ruled against that reading of state law.
“After two years and three Court decisions ruling against them, we hope that the SRC has now learned that even Act 46 presumes what is required for good public schools is to work with your employees by bargaining in good-faith negotiations, not brute and dictatorial actions,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in a statement following the ruling.
Long cash strapped, the SRC revoked the agreement while facing down a $70 million budget shortfall. The board said that changes made to teachers’ health plans, requiring them to pay for some of the costs for the first time, would save them $44 million.
Former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett called the move a common-sense cost saver.
“For nearly two years many have been working to provide a long-term funding solution for Philadelphia schools. The commonwealth and the city have approved new sources of funding; the district has dramatically cut its operating costs; and other school-related unions have agreed to contract concessions,” Corbett said in a statement. “Philadelphia is one of only two districts across the commonwealth that pays zero toward health care. It is now time that members of the PFT join the thousands of public school employees across the state who already contribute to their health-care costs.”
PFT President Jerry Jordan said, in a statement following the Supreme Court ruling, that this lawsuit was a unnecessary cost to the financially struggling district.
“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 said, “It is time now for the district to negotiate a new contract with the PFT. Our educators and schoolchildren can’t wait any longer.”
Philadelphia teachers have been without a contract for four years and haven’t seen a raise during that period.
Philadelphia councilmember and educational activist Helen Gym said that she hoped today’s ruling moves the city’s teachers closer to finally getting that contract.
“I am relieved that an exorbitant and ultimately futile attempt to upend collective bargaining has come to a clear end,” said Gym in a statement. “This major ruling reaffirms what teachers, parents, and students have said for years: our teachers are our partners and a fair contract is too long overdue.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.