Pa. Supreme Court Rules School Reform Commission Can’t Cancel Teacher Contracts

Pennsylvania's highest court ruled that the commission violated state law in 2014 by cancelling its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

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Photo | It’s Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission violated state law by canceling its contract with the city’s teacher’s union in 2014.

The decision brings an end to a two-year legal battle that picked up shortly after the SRC cut off its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and attempted to alter union health benefits in an effort to reduce the budget deficit. That decision came after months of unsuccessful negotiations.

Union leaders see the ruling as a huge success.

“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,” PFT president Jerry Jordan said in a statement.

In 2014, the SRC wanted union members to pay part of the cost of their medical plans, which the commission estimated would have saved $54 million that year. When negotiations were unsuccessful, the Common Pleas Court blocked the SRC from cancelling the contract, and the Commonwealth Court did the same in January 2015. Both courts found that the SRC couldn’t force its terms on the union by cancelling the contract, which expired in 2013.

The SRC had argued that a 1959 state law that allows “distressed” districts to cancel contracts “other than teacher contracts” was being interpreted too widely – that the term “teacher contracts” should apply only to individual teachers’ contracts rather than bargained union contracts.

But the unanimous state Supreme Court ruling, penned by Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, found that “collective bargaining agreements are ‘teachers’ contracts’ which are excepted from a school reform commission’s cancellation powers.”

District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told the Inquirer that no further legal action will be taken.

“It is time now for the District to negotiate a new contract with the PFT,” Jordan said in a statement. “Our educators and schoolchildren can’t wait any longer.”

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