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Pa. Supreme Court Will Determine If Philadelphia Can Cancel Teacher Contracts

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission has said that requiring teachers to pay for a portion of their health care would save the district $200 million over four years.

By Kristen A. Graham

Pennsylvania's highest court will decide whether the Philadelphia School Reform Commission can cancel its teachers' contract.

Had the Supreme Court declined to take the case, the SRC's move in October 2014 to cancel its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) would have been voided.

The Supreme Court, however, through an order issued Monday, essentially gave the district another shot at achieving by fiat what it has been unable to get at the bargaining table.

In January, Commonwealth Court sided with the union, putting aside the SRC's unilateral cancellation of the contract and changes it had imposed on the members' health-care plan. The court said neither the state public school code nor the legislature had expressly given the SRC the power to set aside labor agreements.

The SRC has said that requiring teachers to pay for a portion of their health care would save the district $200 million over four years. That money, school officials have said, would go directly into classrooms. Had the SRC been permitted to cancel the contract, union members would have been forced to pay from $72 to $800 a month for their health care. How much an individual member would pay depended on salary, type of plan, and family status.

Currently, the PFT's 11,000 members do not pay for their health-care benefits, while management employees are required to contribute. The court's brief order did not set a timetable for arguments or indicate when the court would rule.

Schools spokesman Fernando Gallard said in a statement Wednesday that the SRC was "exercising the precise function for which it was created: achieving financial stability for the district in a crisis of underfunding that has prevented our schools from providing basic resources and services to students."

The PFT maintains that the commission lacks the legal authority to cancel contracts. Union officials have said that they offered significant health-care savings at the negotiating table, but that the district rejected its proposals.

School system officials say PFT's proposed concessions were paltry. The teachers' contract expired in August 2013. Though nominally the sides are still talking, no negotiating sessions have been scheduled this summer and none are on the calendar, PFT president Jerry Jordan said. Gallard said that district officials were pleased the court had chosen to hear the case.

The case "presents issues of substantial public importance and goes to the heart of the ability -- and responsibility -- of the School Reform Commission to place the interests of students first. This authority is critical to the future of public education in Philadelphia, and this matter is worthy of final determination by Pennsylvania's highest court," Gallard said.

Jordan said he was "not especially surprised" that the matter landed in the high court's hands.

"Clearly, this SRC has chosen not to try to resolve things amicably at the negotiating table," Jordan said. "Collaboration is not a part of their vocabulary."

With less than a month before the start of another school year, the uncertainty of an unresolved contract is affecting PFT members and their families, Jordan said.

Union staffers have been fielding a steady stream of queries recently from members who have had enough, Jordan said.

"We're getting an inordinate number of calls from teachers saying they're quitting," he said. "They're going outside of the district because they haven't gotten pay raises, and they're buying their own classroom supplies, and there's too much uncertainty."

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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