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Tunkhannock Area School District v. Tunkhannock Area Education Association

April 13, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Pellegrini

Argued: March 16, 2010



Tunkhannock Area School District (School District) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of the 44th Judicial District (Wyoming County Branch) (trial court) denying the School District's petition to vacate an arbitration award in favor of the Tunkhannock Area Education Association (Teachers Association) that found that four School District teachers hired as "special teachers" were covered by the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

The facts of this case are not in dispute. The School District received federal grant funds and used those funds to hire four "special teachers"*fn1 for programs initiated as a result of the receipt of the federal funds. Two of the "special teachers" were hired as Title II teachers, and the other two were hired as Title II Class Size Reduction Teachers. Before commencing their employment, each "special teacher" signed an Agreement of Understanding with the School District that included, inter alia, the following terms:

* "special TEACHERS may be terminated at any time by the DISTRICT;"

* "employment of the [special] TEACHERS is directly contingent upon the receipt of Federal Grant monies and that should the Federal Grant monies be discontinued, the DISTRICT may terminate employment;" and

* "[s]hould the monies be withdrawn for any reason or should the DISTRICT unilaterally determine to terminate the employment, all parties agree that the SUBSTITUTES [that is, special teachers] have no additional employment rights within the DISTRICT. The parties agree that the SUBSTITUTES are not protected by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement or by any Pennsylvania statutory law dealing with tenured employment rights."

(Reproduced Record at 20a-22a, 32a-34a, 42a-44a, 47a-49a, 59a-61a.) (Emphasis added.) Each Agreement of Understanding also stated that the "special teachers" were hired pursuant to Section 1107 of the Public School Code of 1949, 24 P.S. §11-1107.*fn2

Upon learning of the terms of these individual Agreement of Understanding, the Teachers Association filed a grievance seeking to have the "special teachers" retroactively hired as either temporary professional employees or professional employees receiving all the rights and benefits of other members of the collective bargaining unit and made whole from their original date of hire. After the grievance was denied, the matter proceeded to arbitration.

Finding that the School District violated the CBA when it hired the four "special teachers" and failed to provide them with any of the contractual benefits of the CBA, the arbitrator decided in favor of the Teachers Association. According to the arbitrator, Section 1101 of the Public School Code*fn3 provides for only three categories of teachers: professional employees, temporary special employees and substitutes. The arbitrator determined that the "special teachers" in this case clearly were either professional employees or temporary professional employees and must, therefore, have been treated as such. He further determined that they were protected by the CBA, and that any contract that purported otherwise was void. The School District appealed to the trial court.

Applying the "essence test" enumerated in State System of Higher Education (Cheyney University) v. State College University Professional Association (PSEA-NEA), 560 Pa. 135, 743 A.2d 405 (1999), the trial court affirmed, finding that the arbitration award was rationally derived from the contract because the "special teachers" were professional employees covered by the CBA, and the CBA trumped the individual Agreement of Understanding. This appeal followed.

On appeal, the School District contends that the trial court erred by using the wrong standard of review when it employed the essence test rather than the "contrary to law" test found in Section 7302(d)(2) of the Uniform Arbitration Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §7302(d)(2). Section 7302(d)(2) provides:

Where this paragraph is applicable a court in reviewing an arbitration award pursuant to this subchapter shall, notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter, modify or correct the award where the award is contrary to law and is such that had it been a verdict of a jury the court would ...

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