Scranton School District fights claim that tenured teachers were illegally furloughed

By Takesha Thomas | Nov 26, 2018

SCRANTON - The Board of School Directors of the City of Scranton is asking a court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a group of tenured teachers who lost their jobs due to budget cuts. 

The district removed the case from Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas on Nov. 2 to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. This followed three formerly tenured district employees - Joshua Watters, Molly Popish and Laurie Burdett - filing a claim alleging the district didn't follow state law when deciding to release them from their employment with the district. 

Their lawsuit sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the district.

The former employees claim that, under Pennsylvania local agency law, the district failed to comply with Pennsylvania School Code when it violated the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution. 

Under Act 55 of 2017, substantial impairment of tenured status Pennsylvania state law, suspension of an employee of tenured status can only take place when there is a substantial decrease in pupil enrollment; curtailment or alteration of an education program; consolidation of schools; or when new districts are established as a result of reorganization of school districts. 

The employees allege a resolution passed by the district failed to comply with all the requirements. 

Additionally, the lawsuit contends that the district's board "must within 60 days prior to the date of the adoption of the budget adopt a resolution with intent to suspend professional employees for the following fiscal year" in order for an economic furlough to take place. 

According to complaint, the Board of School Directors of the City of Scranton held a Jan. 25 special meeting for general purposes with the resolution included. The Superintendent of Schools informed the board that the "resolution didn't include programs cut with the exception of the library." 

But the board voted unanimously to adopt the resolution, teachers say. They had neither approved nor authorized the elimination of programs or the furlough employees prior to the Jan. 25 meeting, the complaint says.

The employees say that on Jan. 26 the district's Human Resources Department informed 71 of the district employees that as of Aug. 31, due to "economic reasons" the board had voted to furlough their employment. 

Twenty-eight of the district's tenured teachers requested a hearing before the board challenging the suspensions. On March 28, the board finalized the budget, which included the suspension of the teachers. By June 22, the board determined that seven of the tenured teachers would be furloughed while the others would be called back to work.

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