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Connecticut Supreme Court Addresses Whether Mid-Year Increase in Teacher Workload Constitutes Unilateral Change of Condition of Employment

In a decision released by the Connecticut Supreme Court on November 16, 2010, Board of Education of Region 16 v. State Board of Labor Relations et al., Region 16 appealed to the Superior Court challenging a decision by the state board of labor relations (“SBLR”) which concluded that the school district had unilaterally changed a condition of employment in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-153e (b) when it increased the workload of four special education teachers during the course of a school year. The SBLR also held that the school district had engaged in unlawful direct dealing with the employees. The Superior Court dismissed the appeal. The school district appealed to the Appellate Court, which, in turn, transferred the appeal to the Supreme Court.

By way of factual background, the work hours of four special education teachers were increased after a colleague resigned mid-year. When the district was unable to find a replacement, the four remaining teachers agreed to divide the departing teacher’s workload. Thereafter, they complained that their workload was too onerous and requested that the union demand an increase in compensation on their behalf.

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the SBLR’s finding that the district had unilaterally and substantially changed a definite and fixed employment practice was not supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, reversed the trial court’s decision on that point. The court reasoned that the union had failed to establish a fixed and definite employment practice, where it failed to present any evidence that the caseloads handled by the teachers or the hours that they worked per week were substantially greater than in years previous. Although the union presented evidence that the teachers had been required to work more hours per week after the departure of a colleague than they had worked in the weeks immediately preceding his departure, the union presented no long term evidence that the increased number of hours was substantially greater than the number of hours per week that the teachers had worked in previous academic years.

On a separate issue, the Court affirmed the trial court’s holding that the SBLR’s ruling that the school board had engaged in unlawful direct dealing was supported by substantial evidence. The Court found that although the director of pupil personnel’s initial meetings with the teachers, at which time reallocation of the departing colleague’s workload was discussed, did not constitute direct dealing, her conduct after she became aware that the union intended to file a complaint constituted direct dealing. Moreover, her suggestion that the teachers withdraw their complaint and request that the teachers write a letter indicating that the union had approached them, when, in fact, they had approached the union, was patently intended to influence the teachers on a matter in which the union was representing them. As such, her conduct served to undermine the union’s role as the exclusive bargaining representative for the teachers.