The American Federation of Teachers has filed unfair labor practice charges against the Perelman Jewish Day School’s board of directors for “interfering with the faculty members’ right under federal law when it withdrew its recognition of the union,” according to union head Ted Kirsch.
The April 7 move came in response to the board’s unilateral decision  on March 24 to no longer recognize the union’s representation of the 55 teachers at Perelman, a private school affiliated with the Conservative movement that serves more than 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade on campuses in Wynnewood and Elkins Park.
At the same time, by Monday, all of the school’s eligible teachers had signed contracts of intent for next year and letters of acceptance of a hand book outlining the new agreement, per the board’s request.
“There’s no reason for this,” Kirsch said. The board “just wants power and control.”
The board, however, asserts that the move will eliminate roadblocks represented by the union that discourage communication between teachers and the administration.
Aaron Freiwald, the father of a Perelman student and the board member who headed the task force behind the move, said the board unanimously agreed that the change would lead to a “culture of collaboration” and give the administration needed flexibility to address teacher employment.
“The important changes we are now implementing will benefit, first and foremost, our students,” Freiwald said.
But Lisa Richman, the Perelman union president and a longtime Judaic studies teacher at the school, said the real issue is that the board’s decision gives them complete impunity to hire or fire teachers at will.
“It is clear that you never intended to negotiate, and you were deliberately deceptive, not once but repeatedly, over a period of months,” Richman wrote in a letter to the board last week that she says has gone unanswered. “You deceived us with your secret task force by stalling negotiations and refusing to be upfront with the faculty about the issues — not seniority or tenure, but removing people you deem incompetent.”
Kirsch explained that under the teachers’ current contracts, tenure can only be attained after five years, whereas public school teachers represented by the union can attain tenure after three years.
“After five years you can’t make a decision if a teacher’s good or not? That’s more than enough time,” Kirsch said, dismissing tenure as a legitimate problem.
The board initially released a FAQ sheet addressing several bullet point questions — including one about tenure and the hiring process.
“Going forward, hiring decisions will be based on performance rather than tenure under a collective labor agreement,” the statement read. “This will allow administrators to match the best-performing teachers with the demands of our educational program.”
A meeting between board members and teachers that was held on April 3 to discuss the issues did little to assuage the concerns of teachers, Richman said.
“They never answered the essential questions of why, ” she said. “The fear is that they want to come in and clean house.”
Richman also referred to two documents teachers were requested to sign that included a letter of intent for next year and the acceptance of a handbook that outlines new guidelines for teacher employment. The handbook’s wording on certain subjects has caused concern among the teachers.
Teachers were given until April 7 to hand in the signed documents. Richman said that all of them, herself included, signed out of fear that the board might use refusal to sign as an excuse to terminate their employment for next year. A comment from Freiwald during the April 3 meeting confirmed those fears, she said.
Freiwald rejected the notion that the board was attempting to “get rid of teachers,” and said he hoped the teachers’ signing of the document would serve as a catalyst to move forward.
“Perelman’s board and administration could not be more pleased that every eligible faculty member has now signed an individual employment agreement for the next school year, which will be the first year under our new administrative model,” Freiwald said. “Now our focus is moving forward and looking forward to even closer, more robust collaboration between administrators and our wonderful faculty.”
The union’s decision to file legal charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Perelman has sparked a debate about the legal boundaries of the union’s representation of private religious schools and the board’s decision to remove them from the equation.
A federal law, called the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, states that employees of any profession reserve the right to be represented in collective bargaining agreements “through representatives of their own choosing.”
However, Perelman’s board members assert that there is a judicial precedent that excludes private religious schools from protection under the federal act. They refer to the National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979. The court ruled that while congressional intent of the 1935 act implied the inclusion of lay teachers at religious schools to the federal collective bargaining agreement, the lack of wording actually specifying that means that such teachers are in fact exempt.
It is the same case that Hillel Day School in Detroit used to de-unionize its teachers in 2005.
The Detroit day school’s head, Cheltenham native Steve Freedman, said the Michigan teachers’ union representing the day school ultimately halted its legal battle against the school after the board referred to the 1979 case.
“Unions have no place in independent schools, let alone religious schools,” Freedman said. “Unions represent an outside interference to the rights of the board.”
He also asserted that teacher surveys taken before and after the de-unionization process concluded that teachers were happier post-union.
“No one talks about it anymore; it’s all history,” Freedman said.
But the American Federation of Teachers claims that Perelman’s actions still violated federal law “when it threatened employees, telling the teachers they would be without jobs in September if they did not waive their rights under the NLRA and accept the board’s withdrawal of union recognition,” the union said in a statement.
“The union alleges that the board violated federal labor law further when it offered teachers jobs for next school year without negotiating or consulting with the union; when it refused to negotiate with the union; and when it denied union members representation by their AFT Pennsylvania staff representatives during meetings where the board discussed terms of employment with teachers.”
Teachers working at other Jewish day schools in the area, such as Abrams Hebrew Academy and Torah Academy, are not represented by a union and work on contracts agreed upon directly between staff and the administration.
Barrack Hebrew Academy is the only other private religious school in the area represented by the AFT, which has represented Perelman since 1976.
Rabbi Ira Budow, director of Abrams, said that while he “understands both sides clearly” in what has become a “difficult situation,” he commiserated with the Perelman board and the difficulties of maintaining a Jewish day school in today’s economic climate.
“Our school would not survive in that situation monetarily with the union,” Budow said, adding that Abrams still has a great track record of teacher longevity even without union representation.
In addition to pressing the unfair labor practice charges against Perelman, Kirsch pushed forward a resolution of support for the Perelman teachers with the Pennsylvania American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the United States.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, which is holding its convention in Pittsburgh this week, passed the resolution on April 10.
The official statement of the federation said it "condemns the Perelman Board of Director’s withdrawal of union recognition from its faculty after a precedent spanning almost four decades."
At Adath Israel, where Perelman students participated in their annual mock seder on April 10, two union representatives handed out leaflets providing general information on the situation to parents dropping off their children.
Barbara Goodman, communications director for the AFT in Pennsylvania, said the school got "a little flustered" and that an anonymous person flagged down police to stop them from distributing the leaflets, but the police determined the union representatives were allowed to continue as is their right.
AFT national president Randi Weingarten also released a statement in which she said she was "appalled" at the events occurring at Perelman.
""No doubt the Perelman school will assemble its students for a Passover seder to tell the communal story of the journey from oppression and slavery in Egypt to liberation," Weingarten said. "I call on the Perelman school to change its own Passover story and, instead of oppressing its teachers, to reverse its decision to strip teachers of their union."