Court Confirms Right of Union to Pursue Arbitration of Statutory Claim; Charter School Controversy Should Have Been Arbitrated Under Collective Bargaining Agreement

In United Teachers Los Angeles v. Los Angeles Unified School District, the Second District Court of Appeal confirmed two important principles. First, the court recognized a union’s right to pursue arbitration in a charter school controversy where the issue was whether the local school district complied with provision of a collective bargaining agreement designed to assure prior notice to the union in the event that an attempt was made to organize a charter school.  In so ruling, the court held the union clearly had “standing” to pursue the issue under the arbitration clause in the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.

Second, the court also ruled that the arbitrator, and not the court, was the person to decide the validity of the underlying provisions of the collective bargaining agreement designed to assure notice to the union of a charter school petition (the school district contended that the provisions were preempted by the California Education Code).  If the arbitrator concluded the contract clauses were valid, the next question in arbitration would be whether the district violated the notice clauses and, if so, what the remedy should be.

While this case is strong reaffirmation of the role a union can play in the public education context, and particularly in the situation where employees may be shifted to a charter school, a key question remains unanswered.  The court made clear that if an arbitrator eventually concludes the parties’ collective bargaining agreement is valid (not preempted) the district could later challenge that conclusion on a petition to vacate the arbitration award, similar to what happened in Board of Education v. Round Valley Teachers Ass’n, 13 Cal.3d 269 (1996).

It should be noted that the underlying collective bargaining agreement in the United Teachers case contains specific negotiated clauses designed to provide notice in exactly this type of situation.  As explained above, still to be decided in arbitration is the question of whether those clauses are preempted by Section 47611.5 of the state Education Code (which declares that the “approval or denial of a charter petition . . . shall not be controlled by collective barging agreements . . . .”).

For your convenience, a copy of the Court of Appeal opinion is attached.

UPDATE ALERT:  The California Supreme Court has granted review in this case. For that reason, the attached Court of Appeal opinion cannot be cited as precedent, but we caution interested parties to keep an eye out for this case while it is under review by the state high court. We will report further on this issue once the California Supreme Court has issued its decision.

At Slote & Links, we regularly advise school leaders about issues pertinent to public and private education.  Feel free to contact us if you have an issue in this important area.

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