Arbitrator appeal decision expected soon
BY PAT FARNELLI
Wyoming County Press Examiner
A Wyoming County judge will decide by Friday whether or not to grant a $3.6 million arbitration settlement to furloughed teachers from the Tunkhannock Area School District.
Senior Judge Brendan Vanston heard arguments from both sides at the appeal hearing at the Wyoming County Courthouse Monday afternoon.
Attorney Frank Tunis, representing the Tunkhannock School Board, began his lengthy presentation by noting that he had provided the judge with a 31-page petition.
“I don’t want to repeat anything,” he said.
He held up placards with quotes from the state school code as well as parts of documents from last July and October.
During contract talks in June and July 2011, at the time when the current collective bargaining agreement was due to expire, the teachers offered to take a one-year pay freeze if no teachers were furloughed, he related.
A one-page document, composed by the teachers themselves, was shown, dated July 1, 2011.
This was reviewed by the school board on July 13, 2011, at an emergency meeting, and was approved by the board, he said.
“It contains one substantive paragraph, with some additional paragraphs that were less consequential,” Tunis said.
After review by the teacher association and the school board, Tunis said, a revised agreement was drawn up in October.
The agreement was from Sept. 1, 2011, until Aug. 31, 2012.
“It was a one year agreement. It never says it will last for perpetuity,” Tunis said.
The 2011-12 school year came and went without furloughs. Then, in July 2012, the school district announced 32 teachers would be furloughed.
The Tunkhannock Teacher’s Association, however, protested this was in violation of the agreement.
An arbitrator then reviewed the documents in November, and decided this past May in favor of the teachers.
The hearing Monday afternoon was designed to make the school board’s case to appeal the arbitrator’s decision.
“Thirty-two teachers will return to school this August, and if they are reinstated with back pay for their time on furlough, that could cost the district in excess of $1.5 million,” Tunis said.
The teachers have been sent letters of reinstatement, requiring a reply within 10 days of receipt whether they will return.
Tunis continued, “Although they waived a provision of school code (in regard to furloughs), that can’t eliminate the school district’s absolute statutory right to furlough teachers for declining enrollment.”
It was noted that arbitrator Tom McConnell spent six months reviewing the contracts, and decided in favor of those furloughed.
“His opinion was that the school district forfeited their right to furlough with the July agreement,” he said.
Tunis also argued, “There is no analysis in this decision. Even though teachers signed contracts, they aren’t worth anything, they are not legal, they are absolutely void, because they violate the state public school code,” he told the judge Monday.
Bill Hebe, the attorney representing the education association and furloughed teachers, began by saying, “I was hoping Mr. Tunis would limit his talk to matters of record.”
Hebe added, “The October memorandum of understanding is the operative agreement between the two parties.”
He said, “The essence of the text is that the collective bargaining agreement is what the parties bargained for and chose to agree on. With regard to the arbitrator’s interpretation of the contract, there is no such language in regards to furloughs. It remains in effect until we have a new agreement.”
Tunis told the judge, “It would certainly be in the interest of both parties to have an answer about the school board’s appeal before school opens or as soon as possible.
Judge Vanston said, “I assure you, you will have an answer by the end of the week.”