Gov. Wolf Threatens Veto of Protect Excellent Teachers Act

This week, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed legislation that would end the practice of basing teacher furloughs on seniority alone. Pennsylvania is one of only 6 states that bases such decisions on seniority alone, and the new law would allow schools to retain less senior teachers who have been rated satisfactory and instead furlough teachers who have been given poorer ratings. Seniority would still be used to break a tie in the event two teachers have been rated similarly in their performance.

Supporters of the new law, known as HB805, note examples in which Districts were forced to furlough distinguished teachers while keeping others that had been rated poorly, simply because they were not permitted to look at other factors than seniority. The new law recognizes that teachers, as professionals, are not all the same and that the student achievement and welfare should be of greater concern than seniority alone.

Governor Wolf, however, has threatened to veto the bill, which currently sits on his desk. Oddly, Governor Wolf claims this is a “local matter to be decided by districts,” yet he continued to threaten a veto of the bill that actually would give local districts the tools to make such a decision.

In addition, the new law would allow districts the ability to make furlough decisions on the basis of economic considerations, whereas now such decisions only can be made on the basis of specific reasons such as declining enrollment, program curtailment, and building or district consolidation.

Stay tuned to see whether the Governor actually provides local districts with these needed tools or follows through on his threat to veto.

EDIT: Governor Wolf in fact did veto the bill Wednesday, May 19, 2016, as threatened.

school bus

School District Required to Provide Student Transportation to Homes of Both Parents

Wednesday afternoon, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the Commonwealth Court, concluding that a student in the Manheim Township School District, who lived with each of his divorced parents on alternating weeks, was entitled to be provided with transportation to both homes.

The District previously did provide transportation to multiple locations for a number of students, whether to the separate homes of divorced parents or to before- and after-school programs, babysitters, etc. As part of a wholesale restructuring of its transportation program to save a significant amount of money, the District not only consolidated some routes but also ended its practice of providing split transportation. Each student would be provided with one bus stop to be used consistently.

The student’s father complained that the one bus stop for this student was too far from the father’s house, since it was the stop that was closer to the mother’s house. After pleading for separate bus stops, noting that the custody arrangement was 50/50, with the child spending just as much time in each home, the father sued the District. The trial court noted that the custody was evenly split, that there was a bus that did go near the father’s home and that had an empty seat on it, and ordered the split transportation arrangement. In other words, the trial court concluded that a child can have two residences for transportation purposes, but it explicitly limited its conclusion to situations like this one, in which the child truly lived in each place as much as the other and in which the District could accommodate the request easily, without needing to add another bus run or even another stop to an existing bus run.

The Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision, and the Supreme Court just affirmed it again in a split decision. The majority considered prior cases in which courts had found a child who lives in two different school districts while subject to a shared custody arrangement could be considered a resident of more than one district for purposes of determining entitlement for transportation services. In that case, the student was entitled to have either district provide transportation to a private school.

Here, then, the Court considered the situation in which both parents live in the same district and the student is looking for two bus stops. While acknowledging that the District was correct that the student could only have one residence for purposes of school attendance, the Court rejected the District’s claim that residency should be considered the same way for transportation purposes.

A concurring justice wrote that the decision was correct but, for similar reasons that caused one justice to dissent, should be limited to situations just like this one – in which the District did have an available seat on a passing bus and could have accommodated the request without financial hardship. Based on the majority’s rationale, though, in which the cost to the District explicitly was rejected as being a concern the legislature deemed relevant in drafting the transportation sections of the Code, I suspect any future cases to be decided the same way, regardless of financial impact.

Districts continue to struggle to deal with the complexities of modern families and living arrangements. Stay tuned, too, because almost certainly the next case will involve parents with something other than a pure 50/50 custody arrangement or a district that does not have an existing bus with a vacant seat that happens to be traveling past the proposed secondary stop.

Blair County Student of the Month

Congratulations to the 2014-2015 Fanelli Willett Students of the Month

Fanelli Willett Student of the Month 2014-2015Fanelli Willett Law Offices and its attorneys were proud to sponsor the Student of the Month as published in the Altoona Mirror throughout the 2014-2015 school year.

Seen here is the complete list of students who were honored each month. Students were selected by their schools and were honored for a number of different reasons. As school law attorneys we regularly get to see the outstanding achievements accomplished by students, and we wanted to honor them and make sure that the Altoona Mirror‘s readers also get to learn about these great students and their hard work. A new student was named each month, and a profile was published in the Life section on the last Thursday of each month throughout the year. A cumulative list also was published monthly, and this list shown here is the final version that was published recently.

We thank the Altoona Mirror for their partnership in highlighting this great work, and we congratulate all of the students for the achievement.

Is More Collective Bargaining Transparency Wise? – Part 2

Recently, I wrote about Pennsylvania Senate Bill 645, which would create the “Public Employer Collective Bargaining Transparency Act.” The bill would require that collective bargaining agreements be made public in advance of their adoption, and I had suggested that although the intentions might be noble the law actually might be counterproductive.

I also mentioned that the bill had one other goal. This second new requirement would be to make clear that certain records relating to bargaining would be subject to disclosure under the Right to Know Law. Specifically, the law would clarify that the draft collective bargaining agreement is subject to disclosure once it is advertised as being ready for adoption. More troubling, though, is the requirement that the public employer would need to disclose “any documents that are presented by a public employer or received by a public employer from an employee organization, in the course of collective bargaining.”

Once again, though, this could create more problems than it solves. Bargaining sometimes requires candid and private communication, and that type of communication can be stifled when one party or another hesitates based on the fear that that their work product would or could be viewed later by parties for whom it was not intended.

The bill’s goal – creating accountability to collective bargaining – is noble. At the end of the day, though, local elected officials ARE accountable for the decisions they make with respect to collective bargaining agreements, just as with any other decisions they make involving public money and public trust. If the public disapproves of the way elected officials are handling bargaining, they can replace them with new elected officials.

At the state level, of course, the process is different. State contracts are negotiated by the Governor, the executive, rather that by the legislature. At least one proponent of the bill, the Commonwealth Foundation, correctly notes that the bill would would allow legislative input and oversight that currently is lacking at the state level. A better solution, though, would be to require legislative input by, for example, requiring a legislative ratification of state collective bargaining agreements.

At this point, the bill is still in committee in the state House, but we will keep an eye on it to see what, if any, changes public employers can expect.

Bill Aims to Bring More Transparency to Public Collective Bargaining – But is it Wise?

A series of bills introduced in the Pennsylvania House and Senate this session would bring more transparency to the process of public sector bargaining. Whether this would be a benefit for the taxpayers, as suggested by the bills’ proponents, though, remains to be seen.

Last month Senate Bill 645 passed the Senate and was referred to the House, where the bill sits in the State Government Committee. This bill, known as the “Public Employer Collective Bargaining Transparency Act” would require that all public employers provide public notice of any proposed collective bargaining agreements in advance of, and for thirty days after, the signing of any agreement. Absent the public notice, the agreement would be void.

Currently, Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law permits public employers to conduct bargaining in executive session, and most bargaining sessions in fact do occur in private. Often, and in fact by design, many times the agreements that result from the bargaining are not made known until after the employer and the employees’ union both approve the deal.

The bill would require the public notice presumably so that the public would be able to offer input into the agreement before it is already approved. Sponsors and supporters of the bill also have complained that the state legislature, which must fund these agreements with the state’s various unions, does not know what will be in those agreements and has no input into the terms that it will be obligated to try to fund.

While the argument has more merit with respect to state union contracts, since the legislature has no advanced input either, the proposed rule might be counterproductive at a local level, where the same problem does not exist. I wrote above that if often is by design that the details of an agreement are kept quiet until the agreement can be approved by the union membership and the governing body of the local government. This is intended to limit the extent to which the union members and supporters can place pressure on the governing body in an effort to influence the governing body’s vote on the agreement. In that sense, providing advanced public notice of a proposed agreement is likely to aid the union more so than the taxpayers.

If the stated goal of the bill is to provide more transparency in an attempt to limit union influence, the means employed to achieve that goal is not well suited to the goal, at least at the local level.

In a future post, I will address the bill’s second major requirement, which likewise may be counterproductive as well. In the meantime, I will continue to watch the progress of this bill and the others like it.

[EDIT: Read Part 2 here]