Teachers at Perelman Jewish Day School are reeling in the wake of a decision by the school’s board of directors to no longer recognize the union that has represented them since 1976.
The teachers were informed of the decision following a closed-door board meeting on March 24. Since then, the union representing the teachers, the American Federation of Teachers, has said it will file an unfair labor practice charge, and members of the board have been fielding questions from distraught teachers.
Under the new terms that would take effect in the fall, faculty members could be fired at any time without cause, a hearing or any recourse, according to the AFT. Teachers would also give up seniority, tenure and other rights that are guaranteed under their current collective bargaining agreement.
“They are basically nullifying every right these faculty members have fought for, for over 40 years,” said Barbara Goodman, communications director for the AFT in Pennsylvania. “As a union, we are appalled.”
For their part, board members defended the decision as the right move to ensure the health and long-term interests of the school.
Aaron Freiwald, the father of two Perelman graduates with a third set to complete fifth grade this year, told the Jewish Exponent that the board’s decision was made with a focus on what they believe is in the best interest of the students.
“Everyone on our board is a parent or a grandparent or an alum,” he said. “Change isn’t always as easy as you like it to be, but in the end I think this is the best decision, also for the teachers.”
Perelman is a private school, affiliated with the Conservative movement, with 55 teachers serving more than 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade on campuses in Wynnewood and Elkins Park.
The school, like most Jewish day schools in the country, has been struggling to boost enrollment. Its Saligman Middle School this year was absorbed into the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
The Perelman board has said it will honor teachers’ current contracts with the union through Aug. 31. After that, each teacher would have an individual contract with the school.
Goodman of the AFT, told the Exponent that many union members and staffers are Jewish and the board’s decision is a “real violation of the community’s trust.”
Board members responded to the outcry by releasing a document outlining their reasoning behind the decision and answering questions that have arisen as a result.
They also held a series of meetings with the teachers.
“Removing tenure and seniority will provide administrators with greater flexibility in recruiting new teachers, managing assignments of teachers to appropriate classrooms, and retaining and recognizing excellent teachers,” the FAQ sheet read.
The document also disputed claims that the change went against Jewish values, stating that “our Jewish values motivated the board to reach this decision. We take seriously our responsibility to instill in our children a love of learning and to inspire them to lead meaningful Jewish lives.”
Freiwald said the board’s decision to remove the union from the equation was intended to cultivate a “culture of collaboration” between the administration and the teachers.
“The system in place when you have a union contract makes it very difficult to even suggest to a teacher how to improve,” Freiwald said, asserting that teacher grievance claims filed through the union can transform a simple complaint into a full-blown procedure.
Lisa Richman, a teacher and the union president at Perelman, disagreed with the notion that there is any current lack of communication.
Lack of collaboration has “never been an issue at our school, ever, ever, ever,” Richman said.
One subject that arose during the sessions held with teachers and board members following the decision, according to Richman, was the board’s issuing of a new handbook that outlines general guidelines for employees of Perelman.
Current teachers were asked to individually sign two separate forms: A letter of intent to hire the individual teacher for the 2014-15 academic year and a receipt of acceptance of the new handbook.
Though Richman conceded that board members were receptive to amending certain details in the handbook that teachers felt needed clarification, she said that some of the language was still “very scary.”
“Each new employee and each continuing employee will receive an annual employment letter outlining the terms of his/her employment,” reads one phrase in the handbook. “PJDS has the right to alter, vary, or amend any term of your employment letter at any time, including your job position/assignment.”
“A lot of people are saying it’s a lack of derech eretz,” or respect for others, Richman said of the situation.
In response, Freiwald suggested that the new deal will be beneficial to the teachers.
“Every teacher was offered a position for next year. Every teacher was offered a pay raise higher than the union requested. Every teacher was offered more in benefits than the union offered,” Freiwald said.
Richman said that the raise of 3 percent being offered by the board is an average that could potentially pit teachers against one another as they may receive varying percentage raises.
Jesse Bacon, a parent who was quoted in the union’s news release, said the move “is a violation of Jewish precepts regarding the right of collective bargaining and the inspiring legacy of the Jewish labor movement.”
Richman said that while the teachers were “disappointed and deeply saddened by the board’s actions,” they were still open to conducting dialogue with the board and administration.
Freiwald, however, quickly dispelled notions that the school has any plans to negotiate.
“The board's decision is final, is unanimous, and will not be reconsidered,” he said. “We now need to move forward.”
According to Richman, she reached out to the board last October to discuss contract negotiations but was told repeatedly to wait for more information until the board meeting in March.
“I’ve reached out on numerous occasions but they never turned to us for solutions to the problem,” the Judaic studies teacher said.
Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, said the board’s actions violate the National Labor Relations Act. The act outlines and defines the rights of employees to organize and to bargain collectively “through representatives of their own choosing.”
Freiwald refuted the illegality claims, stating that “PJDS is not bound by federal labor laws per U.S. Supreme Court precedent” that exclude religiously oriented schools. He pointed to similar instances of de-unionizing staff at Jewish day schools in Detroit, Chicago and Boston. Kirsch, meanwhile, confirmed that lawyers representing the union are in the process of filing an unfair labor practice charge.
“We will pursue every legal avenue on behalf of these dedicated teachers and committed union members,” Kirsch said. “We believe the board’s actions violate the National Labor Relations Act, and years of Jewish law and tradition on the way to treat employees.”
The local chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee, meanwhile, expressed solidarity with the teachers.
“The Philadelphia JLC stands firmly with the teachers and their union as they fight for their collective bargaining rights, and also in alignment with tenets of Conservative Judaism,” said the group’s Lynne Fox.