Today, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an opinion affirming a circuit court’s dismissal of the lawsuit filed by the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers (PACT) and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff (PASS) against Dr. Tom Kimbrell, Education Commissioner, and the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE), among others, for Dr. Kimbrell’s decision to order the Pulaski County Special School District administration to withdraw recognition of the teacher and staff unions. If you recall, this dispute began in 2011 when the State Board of Education classified the school district as being in fiscal distress, resulting in a state takeover of the district’s operations. The Commissioner removed the district’s superintendent and school board, and appointed Dr. Jerry Guess as the interim superintendent, who in turn, answers to the Commissioner.
After the takeover, Dr. Kimbrell and Dr. Guess were forced to cut $7 million from the district’s operations for the 2012-2013 school year just to keep the district financially afloat. To make up $7M, some of the benefits contained in the union’s existing negotiated agreement with the district, including pay increases, to union members had to be modified. Negotiations between the newly appointed district administration and union officials began in an attempt to reach a new personnel agreement with modified benefits, but no agreement could be reached. As such, Dr. Kimbrell ordered that the district administration withdraw recognition of the unions so that new personnel policies could be put in place in accordance with state law, thus allowing the administration to make the modifications necessary to save money.
The unions filed suit, arguing, among other things, that Dr. Kimbrell acted outside the scope of his statutory authority when ordering the withdrawal of union recognition, as he had only the authority to modify the existing negotiated agreement as it related to the fiscal status of the district, and that many of the provisions of the negotiated agreement that Dr. Kimbrell sought to modify would have had no fiscal impact on the district. ADE responded that it has the statutory authority under the fiscal distress laws to make binding recommendations to the district regarding all aspects of staffing, as well as fiscal practices. It argued that even so-called non-fiscal provisions in the negotated agreement, such as the district’s teacher evaluation system, did in fact have a fiscal impact, as those systems take staff time and money to implement. ADE moved to dismiss the complaints, arguing that it acted within the scope of its authority, and that the union’s complaints were barred by soveriegn immunity.
The circuit court agreed with ADE, and the unions appealed. The Supreme Court explained in its opinion that in determining whether the doctrine of sovereign immunity applies in a case such as this, it looks for whether a judgment for the plaintiff would operate to control the action of the State. If so, the suit is barred. In this case, the Court agreed that the union’s complaints were barred by sovereign immunity, as a judgment for the unions, and thus reinstatement of the unions and their negotiated agreement, would unquestionably operate to control ADE’s actions. The Court ruled that ADE had the statutory authority to derecognize the unions and terminate the negotiated agreement, adding that ADE’s authority under the fiscal distress statutes is broad. Finally, the Court ruled that the unions had failed to state facts in their complaints sufficient to show that the actions taken by ADE were in excess of its authority or in bad faith. Therefore, the Court affirmed the circuit court’s ruling for Dr. Kimbrell and ADE.