A three-member panel of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the
School District of Philadelphia's argument that the language in the collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers allowed for the laying off of job-secure teachers in certain circumstances.
The 2-1 opinion reversed the finding from the lower trial court that agreed with the arbitrator that past practices by the school district and the wording in the CBA created ambiguities, saying the conclusions did not flow logically from the CBA. The higher court remanded to the arbitrator the task of determining whether two layoffs were triggered by declining enrollment.
According to the opinion written by Judge Dan Pellegrini, Marshall Murphy and Valerie Polk received layoff notices in June 2012 that explained the reason for their furloughs was the declining enrollment at Mastbaum Vocational-Technical High School. Murphy and Polk had been with the district since 1976 and 1977, respectively, and were considered job-secured teachers under Article IX of the current CBA.
The clause in question reads, "All employees who were regularly appointed to a full-time and/or part-time position during the 1979-1980 school year shall continue to be employed in their positions and be guaranteed full and complete job security during the term of this Agreement, except that in each job classification, employees may be laid off only in proportion to the projected decline in pupil enrollment as of the allotment date for each year of this Agreement."
Pellegrini writes that both parties stipulated that no other job-secured teachers had been laid off before this case. The PFT provided further testimony from Arlene Kempin, the organization's vice president and chief personnel officer, who said that in the instances when a job-secured teacher was laid off, the district rescinded the order and reinstated the teachers. In some instances, job-secured teachers have been placed as overappointments, meaning that they have been assigned to schools without allocated positions but teach there until authorized positions become available.
Testimony from the district's budget director Wayne Harris claimed that the layoffs were ordered because of the school district's severe financial situation. Theresa McKinzie, executive director of school resource support, also testified that enrollment has been in decline for the past eight years.
The arbitrator decided that the language in the clause was too ambiguous because it aimed to provide absolute job security for teachers employed in 1979-1980, yet still allowed layoffs based on enrollment. To resolve the ambiguity, the arbitrator examined the district's past practices and found a “long and unbroken employment of job secured Teachers…despite the District having longstanding and repeated budget difficulties."
The district was ordered to reinstate the teachers and make them whole for lost wages and benefits. After losing the appeal in trial court, the district took its case to the Commonwealth Court, which decided that the CBA language was anything but ambiguous.
"By its plain language, the provision creates an exception to the general rule that job-secured employees may not be laid off," writes Pellegrini. "The provision is not reasonably susceptible of different constructions and capable of being understood in more than one sense."