HARRISBURG - With much at stake, lawyers for the School Reform Commission on Wednesday asked a panel of five Commonwealth Court judges to affirm their power to cancel the Philadelphia School District teachers' contract.
The law that created the SRC acknowledged that in times of distress, the commission must have at its disposal special powers, argued commission attorney Mark Aronchick.
"The polestar is the children, not the protection of some collective bargaining interest that protects the interest of teachers," Aronchick told the judges.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers lawyer Ralph Teti said the SRC lacks the authority to abrogate its contract.
"I think they overstepped their boundaries greatly," Teti said. "Their view of it is, if we have a contract on Monday, we can cancel it on Tuesday."
The SRC wants to make teachers begin paying a portion of their health-care costs, a move it said would save $54 million annually. Those savings would be sent directly to cash-strapped schools, officials said. Teachers would pay from $72 to $700 a month depending on their salary, the plan they choose, and their family status.
The district had hoped to make changes to 11,200 PFT members' health care effective Dec. 15, but a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court injunction halted those changes for now.
On Wednesday, the Commonwealth Court judges peppered both sides with questions around their central arguments, and about their interpretation of Act 46, the state law that created the SRC.
Several judges, including President Judge Dan Pelligrini, noted that the SRC had negotiated four contracts with the union since the commission was created in 2001. If the SRC can simply impose terms, Pelligrini asked, what good are the contracts?
"Why would anybody enter into any negotiations with you?" Pelligrini said, adding that he thought the SRC was relegating the union to "a meet-and-discuss unit rather than a bargaining unit."
"You have a complete trump card," Judge Bonnie Brigance Ledbetter said.
"Just because the right to strike was taken away doesn't mean there's not an obligation for good-faith bargaining," Aronchick said.
Essentially, Pelligrini said, the district is arguing that it can negotiate contracts but cancel them whenever it deems necessary, and the PFT contends that it can stall until it gets what it wants and the district has no recourse.
"That's a pretty dysfunctional system," Pelligrini said.
"Welcome to the world that the legislature gave us," he said.
The SRC voted unanimously to cancel the contract Oct. 6, after 21 months of slow and ultimately fruitless negotiations with the union, it said. The two sides held over 100 bargaining sessions.
The parties agree that they are not at an impasse and that negotiations will continue, though none are scheduled.
After the hearing, Teti said the union is eager to get back to the table "if and when we ever get this SRC temper tantrum over with."
SRC lawyers declined to be interviewed, but district spokesman Fernando Gallard, in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, said the district appreciated "the court's fast-track consideration of this matter and the opportunity to detail why the court should affirm the SRC's ability to protect children whose classrooms and schools are threatened by unusually dire financial circumstances."
Aronchick frequently referenced those circumstances, at one point telling the court that "if you eliminate the cancellation power, you perpetuate the crisis."
PFT officials have said they put more than $20 million in health-care savings on the table during negotiations, but that the district chose to reject them and pursue a nuclear option. District officials say the PFT's net offering was only a few million.
The timeline for a court ruling is unclear. Commonwealth Court decisions generally come down a few months after arguments, but this is considered a high-priority case and is likely to be expedited.