KINGSTON — The Luzerne Intermediate Unit lost another round in a protracted legal fight that could cost a hefty amount of retroactive teacher pay. Union lead negotiator John Holland said the LIU has no more recourse to appeal, but LIU negotiator attorney John Audi said that is not true.
The dispute centers on the expired teachers contract that has been in negotiations for more than three years. The contract expired Aug. 31, 2010, and teachers have been working under the terms of the old contract without getting any raises.
The union contends teachers legally should have received a “step” raise in 2010-11 even though the contract expired Aug. 31, 2010. Teacher contracts give raises every year up to a set number of years, called steps. The union’s position hinged on a matter of days: It argued that the first day of work that school year was Aug. 23, so the contract was still in effect and thus they still should have received the annual step raise for 2010-11
The union sought and got an arbitration hearing and the arbiter ruled in its favor. The LIU, which provides various services to area schools, primarily special education, appealed that decision in county court, where a judge ruled that precedent, including a case in Northwest Area in 2005, makes it clear a court cannot overturn an arbiter’s decision unless that decision is “indisputably and genuinely” without basis in the contract.
Audi appealed the case to the Commonwealth Court, prompting the county court judge, Michael Vough, to issue an explanation of his decision and why it should be upheld. That explanation notes such an appeal must be based on errors by the lower court and not on alleged errors by the arbiter. The explanation notes that that Audi failed “to allege any errors by this court,” and that the appeal thus should be upheld.
Holland said that means Audi can no longer appeal the case because he has no grounds to do so, but Audi disagreed, saying Vough initially issued a one-sentence ruling without any explanation other than citing the Northwest Area precedent. “I appealed to Commonwealth Court, and you have to tell why you are appealing the lower court order,” Audi said. “But the lower court didn’t really issue an analysis.”
Audi said he can still take the case to Commonwealth Court and get a hearing, but that the LIU board, composed of representatives from the school boards of the 12 member districts, can also decide to pay the money, which would mean giving teachers the step increase for 2010-11 and the same amount for each year since. He didn’t know how much that would come to but said “It’s a significant amount of money.”