HARRISBURG - Did the Philadelphia School Reform Commission have the power to cancel its teachers' contract and impose changes to their health-care plan during a financial crisis in 2014?
SRC attorney David H. Pittinsky told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday that the commission has at its disposal "an arsenal of rights that were given by the General Assembly" to reduce expenses, to ensure that students in the city's public schools have the resources for an "adequate" education.
He spent much of his 35 minutes before the court reviewing public school laws enacted over several decades.
But during the arguments in the high court's ornate chambers in the Capitol, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers countered that state law did not give the SRC the expansive powers it claimed to cancel a negotiated contract and unilaterally impose terms.
Union attorney Ralph Teti described the SRC's argument as legal "gymnastics," and urged the justices to affirm lower courts' rulings.
The SRC appealed to the Supreme Court after Common Pleas Court and Commonwealth Court judges ruled that the commission did not have the authority when it voted in October 2014 to alter health-care benefits. The courts also blocked the SRC from making the changes.
Frustrated by a lack of progress during 21 months of bargaining over a new contract, the SRC sought to reduce costs for the cash-strapped district.
Among other things, the five-member commission wanted to require PFT members to contribute between $72 and $800 a month for their health care. The amount was to be based on the salary, the type of plan, and the number of family members covered by it.
While administrators contributed to costs of their health-care premiums, most of the union's 11,000 members did not. The move was expected to save the district $54 million during that fiscal year and hundreds of millions more in the future.
"The plan was to return every dollar, every penny, to the schools," Pittinsky said.
He and Teti sparred over whether the laws that led to the state takeover of the district in 2001 and created the SRC gave it the power to cancel a collective-bargaining agreement.
Teti said the law gave the new governing body 60 days to cancel contracts such as those for food services, to help deal with finances.
"There is nothing in here to suggest you have the right to suspend a contract with your own employees," he said.
Teti noted that the SRC had been dealing with the district's financial woes since it was created and had negotiated four contracts with the PFT since the 2001 takeover.
"In none of these [prior] instances has the SRC ever claimed the right to void the deal that they had made with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers," he said.
And even though the SRC may have been frustrated in 2014 by the lack of progress, Teti said, talks to replace the contract that expired in 2013 were continuing under the auspices of the state Bureau of Mediation.
"We met as recently as yesterday," Teti said.
At one point, Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor asked Pittinsky if the teachers would have any rights if the contract were canceled: "Do they have any contractual rights, the teachers in Philadelphia? Or, is it at the mere whim and sufferance of the SRC?"
Pittinsky said that under a tenure law that predates collective bargaining for school employees, teachers have some rights, including protection from being fired without cause.
The courtroom audience included leaders of the PFT and American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, as well as representatives from the School District.
"The judges will make their decision, and I certainly have no ability to second-guess what their decision may be," PFT president Jerry Jordan said afterward. "I'm very hopeful that we will prevail, and that the justices will support the decision of the Commonwealth Court."
Michael Davis, general counsel of the School District, said in a statement later that the SRC appreciated the court's attention and "consideration on this very important matter. The justices carefully listened to our position and were actively involved. We firmly believe, as we argued in court . . . that the School Reform Commission has the ability and right to cancel the PFT bargaining agreement."
There was no indication of when the court would rule on the matter.