In a 17-minute meeting convened with virtually no public notice on the morning of October 6, the five members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC), the governing body of the Philadelphia School District, voted to unilaterally impose new contract terms on District teachers, who are represented by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). Among other changes adverse to the teachers, (1) teachers would for the first time be required to contribute to their health insurance; (2) the SRC would cease funding the PFT-administered Health and Welfare Fund, which manages dental, prescription drug, and optical benefits for teachers, and would instead start administering these benefits itself; (3) teachers would lose access to legal services provided by an employer-funded, PFT-administered legal services plan; and (4) retired teachers would no longer receive the dental, vision, or prescription drug benefits that the soon-to-be dissolved Health and Welfare Plan had promised them. Under any reasonable interpretation of applicable law, the SRC cannot unilaterally implement these changes, all of which involve mandatory subjects of bargaining under the Pennsylvania Public Employee Relations Act (PERA).
Prior to 2001, an elected school board governed the District. District employees retained the same organizing rights as other public employees under PERA, including a somewhat circumscribed right to strike. In 1998, the District’s then-superintendent criticized the state government for failing to adequately fund Philadelphia schools and threatened to close the schools midyear if additional funding was not allocated. In response, the Pennsylvania legislature, long suspicious of all Philadelphia government, passed Act 46.
Act 46 granted the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education the power to deem the District “under distress” and to then replace the elected school board with the SRC, a body made up of three gubernatorial appointees and two appointees of the Mayor of Philadelphia. Republican Governor Mark Schweiker ordered his Education Secretary to pull this “takeover trigger” in 2001. According to Act 46, once the District came under SRC control, District teachers lost the right to strike entirely for as long as the takeover remains in place. Those who strike anyway face decertification. Employees also lost the right to bargain collectively about certain specifically enumerated matters. And once in place, the SRC could only be dissolved with the approval of a majority of the difficult-to-remove SRC members themselves. During its roughly thirteen-year existence, the SRC has negotiated multiple collective bargaining agreements with the PFT and other employee representatives.
The most recent bargaining agreement between the PFT and the District expired over a year ago. For 21 months, the two sides have held over 100 negotiating sessions but have been unable to finalize an agreement. The negotiations have occurred against the backdrop of the latest catastrophic budget crisis for the District, which has become a yearly ritual. The unconscionably underfunded Philadelphia schools have been forced to make devastating, even dangerous cuts in order to make ends meet, with class sizes ballooning to unmanageable levels, support staff such as nurses and guidance counselors vanishing, extracurriculars of all kinds being curtailed or eliminated, and teachers and students going without even basic supplies like books and paper.
In September, Philadelphia secured permission from the state to enact a dedicated local cigarette tax to help the schools, but only after a months-long relentless campaign by the PFT and its members. With the tax in place, the SRC felt freed to take the explosive step of unilaterally imposing the new contract terms on the teachers, which it did in a semi-secret meeting before a largely empty conference room. Predictably, the SRC’s action set off a genuine firestorm of criticism, with the blindsided teachers holding a massive daylong rally and hundreds of high school students going on “strike” and staging demonstrations to show solidarity with their teachers, who under Act 46 could not lawfully strike themselves. Immediately after its vote, the SRC filed a motion for declaratory judgment seeking validation of its action in a Pennsylvania appellate court.
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of this post, I will analyze the SRC’s legal argument and explain why it does not have the power to unilaterally impose contract terms on its teachers.