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Marion Center Area School Dist. v. Marion Center Area Education Association

October 30, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Pellegrini

Argued: October 15, 2009



Marion Center Area School District (School District) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County (trial court) sustaining an Arbitrator's (Arbitrator) award of back pay with interest to teachers represented by Marion Center Area Education Association (Teachers) even though the School District fell short of the statutorily mandated 180 days of student instruction, which was caused by less available days within the statutory period because of legal teacher strikes and three days missed due to winter weather.

The Teachers and the School District entered the 2006-2007 school year under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that had expired on August 24, 2005. After working the previous year under the terms of the expired CBA, the Teachers went on strike from September 5 through September 29, 2006. After a brief return to work, the Teachers again went on strike from October 16 through October 30, 2006, for a total of 30 available school days missed. Following the second strike, the parties were able to successfully negotiate a new CBA, which was made fully retroactive to the end date of the expired CBA.

Pennsylvania school districts are required to educate their students for at least 180 days per school year to be completed by June 30 of that year.*fn1 Due to the two strikes, the School District revised the school schedule so that 180 days of instruction could be achieved by June 30, 2007, but that schedule had only a two-day margin of error due to weather or unforeseen circumstances foreclosing instruction of students.

School was cancelled due to weather on February 5, 6 and 14, 2007, although the Teachers reported to the middle and high schools on one day before they were notified of the cancellation. As a result, the School District could not complete 180 school days by June 30. The School District petitioned the Secretary of Education for an exception to the 180-day requirement but was denied, and because it only provided 177 or 178 student instructional days, it lost state-subsidy monies for failing to meet the 180-day requirement. Because the Teachers worked only 177 or 178 days, the School District deducted two days pay for the middle and high school teachers and three days pay from the elementary school teachers from their June 29, 2007 paychecks.

The Teachers responded by filing a grievance with the School District on July 10, 2007, contending that the School District's decision to deduct two or three days from their salary violated the CBA because the Teachers were entitled to be paid for 180 days of work regardless of whether the Teachers actually worked all 180 days. The School District denied the grievance, and it proceeded to mandatory arbitration before the Arbitrator. The Arbitrator sustained the grievance ordering the School District to pay the Teachers their full salary, together with interest at six percent per annum from the due date.

In reaching this decision, the Arbitrator relied on Article V, Section 1 of the CBA, which provides:

The length of the school year for employees covered under this agreement shall be one hundred eighty (180) pupil or Act 80 days and three (3) non-pupil contract days. Any days worked in excess of one hundred eighty three (183) days shall be compensated at the contracted hourly rate as per Article VIII, Section 2 of this agreement.

(Reproduced Record at 38.) Reasoning that the CBA provided a mechanism for additional compensation for extra days worked but did not provide a mechanism to deduct pay for fewer days worked, the Arbitrator applied the principle expressio unius est exclusio alterius*fn2 to rule that the CBA mandated 183 days pay (180 student days and 3 non-student days) to be paid to the Teachers regardless of whether those days were actually worked.

The School District appealed the Arbitrator's decision to the trial court, which affirmed the Arbitrator's decision on two grounds. First, the trial court held that the Arbitrator's decision passed the deferential "essence test" standard because it was rationally derived from the CBA; second, the trial court ruled that paying the Teachers for days missed was not a violation of public policy because the required 180 days would have been achieved were it not for the winter weather. The School District then appealed the trial court's decision to this Court.

On appeal, the School District makes two contentions. First, the School District argues that the trial court erred in declining to vacate the Arbitrator's award because the Arbitrator only considered Article V, Section I of the CBA while ignoring Article II, Section 2 of the CBA, which provides: "Nothing contained herein shall be construed to deny or restrict either party such rights as they may have had under the Public School Code of 1949, as amended, or other applicable laws and regulations." According to the School District, Article II, Section 2, in the context of this case, means that the Arbitrator could not ignore or render meaningless the School District's mandate to provide 180 days of instruction to its students. Taken together, these two sections cannot be rationally interpreted under the essence test to mean that the Teachers could be paid for statutorily mandated days they did not work.

With regard to the School District's first contention, a court may vacate an arbitrator's award only if it violates the essence test. Our Supreme Court considered the parameters of the essence test at length in State System of Higher Education (Cheyney University) v. State College University Professional Association ...

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