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JERSEY SHORE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT v. JERSEY SHORE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION (10/17/88)

decided: October 17, 1988.

THE JERSEY SHORE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, APPELLEE,
v.
JERSEY SHORE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, PENNSYLVANIA STATE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION AND ALL CLASSROOM TEACHERS AND PROFESSIONAL PERSONNEL EMPLOYED BY THE JERSEY SHORE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT WHO ARE MEMBERS OF THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION AND/OR THE JERSEY SHORE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, APPELLANTS



Appeal from the order of the Commonwealth Court entered July 23, 1986, at No. 3132 C.D. 1984, affirming the orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County entered October 10, 1984, and October, 23, 1984, at No. 84-01972, Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Zappala, Papadakos and Stout, JJ. Larsen, J., files a dissenting opinion in which Papadakos, JJ., joins. Zappala, J., files a dissenting opinion.

Author: Stout

[ 519 Pa. Page 399]

OPINION OF THE COURT

This appeal is brought by the members of the Jersey Shore Education Association, which represents the teachers

[ 519 Pa. Page 400]

    of the Jersey Shore Area School District.*fn1 In it we are asked to reconcile that provision of the Public Employees Relations Act (PERA), 43 Pa.Stat.Ann. §§ 1101.101-.2301 (Purdon Supp.Pamph.1988), which gives teachers the right to strike,*fn2 with that provision of the Public School Code, 24 Pa.Stat.Ann. §§ 15-1501 to 16-1613 (Purdon 1962 & Supp. 1988), which mandates that school districts provide 180 days of pupil instruction. Specifically, PERA provides:

If a strike by public employes occurs after the collective bargaining processes set forth in Sections 801 and 802 of Article VIII of this act have been completely utilized and exhausted, it shall not be prohibited unless or until such a strike creates a clear and present danger or threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public.

43 Pa.Stat.Ann. § 1101.1003 (Purdon Supp.Pamph.1988) (emphasis added). On the other hand, the Public School Code provides: "All public kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools shall be kept open each school year for at least one hundred eighty (180) days of instruction for pupils." 24 Pa.Stat.Ann. § 15-1501 (Purdon 1962 & Supp.1988).

On September 10, 1984, after only four days of pupil instruction, the teachers struck against appellee, Jersey Shore Area School District.*fn3 On October 8, 1984, the school district filed for an injunction in the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County, in an effort to force the teachers back to work. A hearing was held on October 10, 1984, following which the Chancellor issued an injunction ordering the

[ 519 Pa. Page 401]

    teachers back to work on October 11.*fn4 The Association filed for reconsideration and an additional hearing was held on October 23, 1984. The Chancellor refused to lift the injunction. The Association appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed solely on the basis of the Chancellor's finding that the school district's impending inability to schedule 180 days of instruction presented a clear and present danger to the public because of a threatened loss of state subsidies. 99 Pa. Commw. 163, 512 A.2d 805 (1986). See School District of Pittsburgh v. Commonwealth Dept. of Educ., 492 Pa. 140, 422 A.2d 1054 (1980). While we disagree with the Commonwealth Court that the threatened loss of state subsidies alone would support the issuance of an injunction, we nonetheless affirm on the record as a whole.

We must first address the issue of mootness. Because the teachers have long since returned to the classroom, this appeal is technically moot. Yet, the issue it raises is one of important public interest, capable of repetition, which is apt to elude review. Therefore, we shall entertain this appeal. See, e.g., Wiest v. Mt. Lebanon School Dist., 457 Pa. 166, 169 n. 1, 320 A.2d 362, 364 n. 1, cert. denied, 419 U.S. 967, 95 S.Ct. 231, 42 L.Ed.2d 183 (1974). Compare Commonwealth v. Joint Bargaining Comm., 484 Pa. 175, 398 A.2d 1001 (1979) (signing of new contract rendered appeal moot).

Next we turn to the standard of review accorded decisions by an equity court. Myriad cases have long emphasized that it is narrow. Scientific Living v. Hohensee, 440 Pa. 280, 270 A.2d 216 (1970), cert. denied, 402 U.S. 1012, 91 S.Ct. 2189, 29 L.Ed.2d 435 (1971); Shapiro v. Shapiro, 424 Pa. 120, 224 A.2d 164 (1966), overruled on other grounds, Butler v. Butler, 464 Pa. 522, 347 A.2d 477 (1975); Steinmeyer v. Siebert, 190 Pa. 471, 42 A. 880 (1899). Ordinarily,

[ 519 Pa. Page 402]

    a Chancellor's findings of fact will not be disturbed absent "an abuse of discretion or a capricious disbelief of the evidence or a lack of evidentiary support on the record for such findings." Shapiro, 424 Pa. at 127, 224 A.2d at 168. A Chancellor's conclusions of law bear stricter scrutiny, see id., 424 Pa. at 127, 224 A.2d at 168. This Court has stated that it will not reverse a grant of injunctive relief "unless . . . the rules of law relied on are palpably wrong or clearly inapplicable." Lindenfelser v. Lindenfelser, 385 Pa. 342, 343-44, 123 A.2d 626, 627 (1956) (citations omitted). Bearing in mind this standard of review, we turn to the evidence.

At the first hearing the superintendent for the school district testified that he had prepared a revised school calendar. Allowing for six snow days*fn5 and two non-mandatory holidays,*fn6 the superintendent had concluded that October 15, 1984, would be the last date upon which the teachers could return to the classroom while still ensuring an educationally-sound schedule. In addition, the superintendent testified extensively as to the financial impact of the strike. He stated that the school district stood to lose $26,637.00 per day in state subsidies for each day it fell short of 180 days of instruction. At the time of the hearing the superintendent estimated that the strike had cost the school district $65,944.00 in unemployment compensation, additional salaries and other costs incidental to the strike.

With respect to the students, the superintendent stated that the strike placed the seniors at a competitive disadvantage in terms of SAT testing. Seniors also faced deadlines with respect to scholarship applications and were bereft of

[ 519 Pa. Page 403]

    guidance counseling services. The longer the strike, the more deleterious its effect on the future of the seniors.

With respect to other grades, students would be at a competitive disadvantage in taking state-mandated tests to determine remedial needs. With only four days of instruction, some students could be placed in remedial courses which they would not otherwise have needed. Moreover, in the event the school district could not administer these tests due to the continuation of the strike, it would lose state funding for the remedial courses themselves.

The superintendent stated that interference with a regular pattern of study, as had occurred in this strike, results in a loss of learning capacity, which increases with the length of the interruption. In support of this hypothesis he cited test scores from a previous year showing a drop in student aptitudes following a strike.

Finally, the superintendent expressed his concern that the strike deprived eligible students of a free, hot lunch, possibly the only such meal they received, while working parents were experiencing difficulties with interim baby-sitting arrangements.

The school teachers presented the testimony of two experts. The first disputed the superintendent's interpretation of prior test scores insofar as their reflecting a decrease in pupil learning due to the previous strike. This expert opined that it was inappropriate to compare different student groups for such a purpose. The second expert testified that, as of the date of the hearing, the school district would actually have a net savings in salaries and benefits of $24,199.00 over the potentially lost subsidy.

Having heard this evidence, the Chancellor issued the injunction on the basis of his conclusion that all of the evidence had demonstrated the existence of a clear and present danger ...


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