In a pair of recent interim rulings, the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) ordered two boards of education to pay salary step increments despite the fact that neither board had yet reached a successor agreement with their respective unions.
In each of the decisions, after the collective negotiations agreement expired, the local education association filed an action for emergent relief seeking to compel their respective school boards to pay annual increments beginning the following school year.
While these two decisions are interim decisions, meaning they operate as preliminary injunctions against the districts and can be overturned following a full and complete airing of grievances, it should be noted that the granting of interim relief is rare unless the prevailing side convincingly demonstrates an entitlement to the relief sought. Accordingly, these two decisions are strong indicators that PERC will rule to compel these boards to pay an annual salary increase even before the parties have concluded negotiations.
In the Matter of Englewood Bd. of Educ. and Englewood Teachers Assn., PERC found prior to the expiration of the 2015-2018 collective bargaining agreement between the parties, the union demanded that salary increments be extended to all unit members as of the first pay cycle of the 2018-2019 school year, despite the fact that negotiations were ongoing. The board declined to respond to that demand, therefore, the union filed an unfair practice charge before PERC. While the matter was pending, the board paid members based on their placement in the 2017-2018 salary guide.
PERC noted N.J.S.A. 18A:29-4.1 was revised in 2014 to allow school boards to enter into collective negotiations agreements with local unions for up to five years, instead of limiting such agreements to three years. PERC then turned to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent decision in County of Atlantic for the proposition that terms from expired contracts may be applied to public sector agreements in limited circumstances. Reasoning that the expired three-year agreement could legally be extended to five years, PERC determined that the union was likely to prevail in the litigation and therefore, ordered the board to pay the step increment.
In the Matter of Cliffside Park Bd. of Educ. and Cliffside Park Ed. Assn., PERC determined that the actual language of the collective negotiations agreement contemplated extension of terms past the life of the contract. That language provided that the agreement continued in “full force and effect with all attendant benefits and obligations until a successor agreement is ratified by the Board and Association.” This language, according to PERC, evidenced an intent between the parties to continue all terms and conditions of employment, including the payment of annual step increments, until a successor agreement was ratified.
As in the Englewood decision, PERC determined that Cliffside was likely to prevail on the merits of the case and issued an order directing the board to pay the increment, despite the fact that the agreement had expired.
Boards are encouraged to consult with the board attorney on the potential impact of these orders on district budgeting and operations. For more information, please contact the New Jersey School Boards Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.