The decision by the PA Supreme Court to declare null and void any actions taken by the School Reform Commission under Section 696(i)(3) of the PA School Code seems to indicate that PFT members who have gone without a step or degree raise since August 2013 are now entitled to that monetary compensation in full. This is how the state’s highest court instructs the SRC on the final page of its recent ruling:
In summary, we hold that Section 696(i)(3) of the School Code, 24 P.S. §6-696(i)(3), is unconstitutional as it violates the non-delegation rule of Article II, Section 1. Accordingly Respondents’ actions taken pursuant to that provision are null and void, and Respondents are permanently enjoined from taking further action under the authority it confers.
The legality of the “status quo” position that the District has taken in reference to denying PFT members their step and degree increases for the past few years is based on powers granted by Section 696(i)(3) and actions taken by the SRC at their August 15, 2013 meeting. The portion of that meeting that refers to the freezing of the wages of PFT members can be seen below:
RESOLVED, that the School Reform Commission, in order to maintain a thorough and efficient public school system and to provide additional flexibility as a distressed school district of the first class, pursuant to section 6-696(i)(3) of the School Code, hereby suspends the requirements of sections 11-1141 through 11-1153 of the School Code and any applicable regulations, relating to compensation of professional employees with whom the School District has not reached an acceptable collective bargaining agreement, for the period commencing September 1, 2013 through August 31, 2014, with consideration of the need for continued suspension in future school years
The relevant PA School Codes that the SRC suspended in August of 2013 are two: Section 11-1142, referring to mandated annual step increases, and Section 11-1144, referring to mandated compensation for an earned college certificate or Master’s Degree .
Here is the relevant clause (emphasis added) in Section 11-1142 (f) of the PA School Code:
The mandated salaries provided in this section shall be applicable to all professional and temporary professional employes within their respective class. The annual salaries payable under this section for the school year 1968-1969 and each school year thereafter, shall include an annual service increment for service in the school district during the previous school year by advancing the salary of the professional or temporary professional employe at least one full step on the minimum salary schedule or to the step on which he is entitled to be placed by virtue of years of experience within the school district, whichever is higher.
And here is the relevant clause (emphasis added) in Section 11-1144 of the PA School Code:
Any professional employe or temporary professional employe, who, during the term of his employment, shall receive a college certificate or shall earn a Master's Degree, shall, commencing with the next succeeding school term, be entitled to the compensation prescribed for his new status, which shall be at least three hundred dollars ($300) in excess of the annual service increment earned by him during the previous year
Seeing as the powers invoked by the SRC in August 2013 under the authority of Section 696(i)(3) of the PA School Code are now null and void, retroactive step increases and degree raises should be immediately issued to all PFT members as sections 11-1142 and 11-1144 legally come into full force.
However, as any PFT member who has been paying attention is aware, current PFT leadership has consistently stated that, under “status quo” established by case law (notably Neshaminy Federation of Teachers vs. PLRB), we are not entitled to step and degree increases once a contract expires. This FAQ provided by the PFT about lost wages states as much:
Why has the district not honored step raises nor lateral raises (Master’s, Master’s plus 30, etc.)?
Act 46, the State Takeover, permits the SRC to waive sections of the PA School Code.
On August 15, 2013 the SRC voted unanimously (SRC-1 8-15-13 ) to waive sections 11-1141 through 11-1153 of the PA School Code. These sections stipulate minimum salaries, step increments, and additional increments for college certificate or Master’s Degree.
In addition, the PFT contract expired on August 31, 2013. The School District did not agree to extend the contract during negotiations. According to PA state case law, this is known as status quo; whereby the terms of a CBA become frozen during the negotiations process until at which time a new CBA is reached. This has been defined by the courts in many cases such as Coatesville Area School District v. Coatesville Area Teachers' Association and Neshaminy Federation of Teachers vs. PLRB. The Neshaminy case ruled that “…it is now well-established that maintaining the status quo at contract expiration does not include step-up or longevity wage increases.”
It is clear, though, from the aforementioned actions taken by the SRC in August 2013, the authority to forego step and degree wages by the District is due to the SRC’s suspension of PA SCHOOL CODE. The Neshaminy case, which was decided by the lower Commonwealth Court and was never invoked by the SRC, establishes the legality of “status quo” wage freezes under the PUBLIC EMPLOYEE RELATIONS ACT (PERA) but never specifically mentions the authorization of status quo by the PA School Code. In fact, the Commonwealth Court in the Neshaminy decision also mentions other public employees, such as the Pennsylvania State Park Officers, in reaching its decision that public employees are not entitled to annual step increases under status quo. The Commonwealth Court in the Neshaminy decision, however, NEVER MENTIONS THE PA SCHOOL CODE.
In this respect, the Neshaminy union lawyers failed to bring to the lower court’s attention that public school unions are different from other public sector unions in that they have another set of rules that also apply to them – the PA School Code. The School District of Philadelphia’s lawyers, on the other hand, seem to have been more than aware of this fact when they advised the SRC to bypass step and degree wage increases by using Section 696(i)(3) of the PA School Code instead of the PERA legal precedent established in the Neshaminy case.
In light of the recent decision made by the PA Supreme Court, a new path seems to have opened for all PFT members to demand step and degree wages owed. The PFT’s legal team should immediately invoke Sections 11-1142 and 11-1144 of the PA School Code and demand that the union’s members be made financially whole once again.