State top court order puts Phila. teacher seniority rules in limbo

Posted: June 28, 2014

In what the Philadelphia teachers' union hailed as a major victory, the state Supreme Court said Thursday that it would not get involved in whether the School Reform Commission has the authority to bypass seniority and impose other work rule changes.

In the spring, the commission asked the state's top court to declare that it had the power under the state takeover law to impose the changes, including disregarding seniority for teacher assignments, transfers, layoffs and recalls.

The 11,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers opposed the SRC's moves.

On Thursday afternoon, by a vote of 5-2, the high court said the SRC's request for a special judgment was denied.

PFT president Jerry Jordan called the ruling "very significant."

"It affirms the right of our members to collectively bargain. It's a big, big decision," Jordan said.

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard minimized the significance of the court's decision, saying it had "absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case."

There was never a suit filed in the matter, and the court was asked only to rule on a petition that outlined something the district was already doing. Because of that, the implications of the two-page order were not immediately clear.

Principals spent the spring filling vacancies based not on seniority but on whom they wanted to hire. Whether those decisions will be undone remains to be seen.

"I think the Supreme Court was persuaded that this was nothing more than a typical labor dispute that ought to be settled through the collective-bargaining process or the appropriate grievance and arbitration mechanisms," said Deborah R. Willig, a PFT attorney.

The district and the SRC said they were disappointed that the court decided against reviewing the issues but added in a statement that the court merely decided not to exercise its exclusive jurisdiction to hear the case at this time.

"The denial of jurisdiction in this case by the Supreme Court is not a ruling on the merits of the case," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and SRC Chairman William J. Green said in a joint statement. "However, the denial will lengthen the time for resolving important legal issues and obtaining needed clarity for planning and implementation purposes."

They said the district and SRC "will not back away from our efforts to achieve important reforms, and to use our authority under the Distressed School District Law for this purpose."

Over union protests, the SRC last August temporarily suspended some seniority rules to allow Hite to recall some employees who had been laid off that summer. He said the change enabled him to return some staffers to the schools where they had been employed in June.

In March, Hite said that the district would impose work rules allowing principals to fill teacher vacancies in the fall without regard to seniority.

At that time, the SRC asked the court to declare that the law that led to the state takeover of the district in 2001 gave the commission power to make unilateral changes to work rules, including disregarding seniority in teacher assignments.

The state Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction to decide matters related to the takeover law.

In a dissenting statement to the majority ruling, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Max Baer said they had no opinion on the whether the SRC was entitled to the declaration it sought but thought the court was duty-bound to review the matters.

Ralph Teti, the PFT's lead attorney, said the SRC went to the high court to get a jump on the process and "get the court's blessing on this."

He said the SRC had asked the court "to give them a blank check to do whatever they wanted to do. They didn't get that."

Jordan said that if the district goes forward with its unilateral tossing of seniority, the PFT will explore legal options, but also continue to fight through grievances and arbitration.

The union has been filing grievances when it believes the district has violated provisions of the pact that expired last August.

Negotiations for a new contract have been moving slowly.

215-854-5146 @newskag

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