Good News for Philadelphia Teachers: Court Delays Unelected Reformers’ Shady Contract Cancellation

Kevin Solari

After the School Reform Commission brazenly canceled Philadelphia teachers' contract over budgetary concerns, a court has issued an injunction delaying the commission's move.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas has issued an injunction against the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC) to temporarily prevent it from altering the health benefits of teachers. This prevents SRC from implementing changes it had proposed on October 6, when it voted to cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) without public debate or input.

On October 6, the SRC held a public meeting with minimal notice and an agenda only listing general purposes.” The commission then voted unanimously to cancel its contract with the PFT, electing to use their nuclear option at the end of 21 months of negotiating.

Though the two sides say they were far apart on many issues, the commission’s desire to restructure teachers’ contributions to their health benefits was the principal cause of the cancellation. The mandated changes were to take place beginning December 15, but the court injunction delays their implementation and allows time to sort out whether or not the SRC’s actions are legal. 

PFT President Jerry Jordan responded to the injunction in a statement: The preliminary injunction granted today … reinforces our view that the School Reform Commission cannot simply decide to stop negotiating, then unilaterally cancel the PFT contract and impose new terms.” 

The PFT filed for the injunction because it sought to prevent the changes to the contract while the debate over the cancellation’s legality was unresolved. On October 17, the PFT filed several actions attempting to halt the cancellation and a motion challenging the unilateral changes made by the SRC” and bad faith bargaining challenges” with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

The SRC planned to disassemble the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund — currently administered by the union — and take over the administration of benefits itself. Although the SRC said it would not change salaries or pensions, teachers’ contributions for health benefits could be as much as $200 a month. Under the contract, teachers previously paid nothing for their health benefits.

The School District of Philadelphia has been embattled for years. Years of budget problems brought about the SRC in 2001, which has largely acted to push free market reforms in the city’s school system. The Education Empowerment Act replaced an elected school board with a commission of five members, three appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. Chairman Bill Green, who announced the cancellation October 6, is a lawyer and former options trader without experience in education. .

The cancellation has led to support from the community. On October 8, students from two magnet schools staged walkouts in support of their teachers. 

On October 16, teachers filled the seats at a public SRC meeting — in sharp contrast to the nearly empty room when the cancellation was voted on — and disrupted it. In response to a statement about the SRC supporting students, someone shouted out Not in our neighborhood.” Another woman called out Our black children are starving for education,” and was greeted with a round of applause. As the meeting continued, the audience chanted, SRC, not for me.”

The School District of Philadelphia has been disproportionately defunded since Republican Tom Corbett became Pennsylvania governor: Philadelphia has 10 percent of the state’s students, but has suffered from 25 percent of the budget cutbacks, according to activists.

In an op-ed penned less than a week after the cancellation, Green admitted that 

many teachers have made tremendous sacrifices, frequently taking money from their own wallets to buy whatever was needed for students, whether it was crayons, copy paper, or enough food for a family to make it through the holiday weekend. They did it because it needed to be done, and because of their actions, we’ve been able to hold the system together for as long as we have. 

He went on to say the SRC was committed to resolving the issues at the bargaining table. But the SRC has not met with the union to negotiate since July 1, and the SRC’s unilateral actions, taken outside of the collective bargaining process, seem to contradict this claim. 

With its contract cancellation temporarily undone by the court, the SRC may have to go back to the bargaining table to resolve its issues. But the unilateral action may have removed any remaining trust the teachers had in the SRC. Ralph Teti, a lawyer for the PFT, said that the cancelation undermines the very fabric of collective bargaining.

Kevin is an educator and freelance writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinsolari_.
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