Despite recent attention, ghost teachers are still haunting districts throughout Pennsylvania. In the latest example of taxpayer money being used to fund union activities, the Reading School District is facing a lawsuit for the practice.
The dispute concerns state payments made to absent teachers. District employees have been skipping class and working at the local Reading Education Association (REA) to the tune of $500,000.
Current state law supports collective bargaining agreements between unions and school districts. These contracts define whether or not teachers are paid salaries and benefits by the state to work outside the classroom. Known for making all sorts of odd demands, teachers’ unions in PA use “release time” to pay educators who aren’t instructing students. They’re working for the union.
The plaintiff in the latest lawsuit, Americans for Fair Treatment (AFT), is trying to get that practice stopped. With the assistance from watchdog group the Fairness Center, the suit seeks to eliminate these salary drains from the Reading school district.
The problem with so-called “ghost teachers” has plagued Pennsylvania for years. Recent examples include the school district of Philadelphia. As part of their contract, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union is allowed to remove up to 63 teachers from the classroom so that they can work for the private interest group.
As a result of “release time,” the state is paying 16 Philadelphia absent educators $1.5 million this year. To work for the union, each teacher receives annual compensation of over $81,000.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank in Pennsylvania, performed a study on the controversial topic. They found that 22 percent of state school districts support full-time ghost teachers. An amount that has resulted in 198 former district employees working for unions, while remaining on the public payroll.
Last year, a similar lawsuit against the Allentown School District was filed by the Fairness Center on behalf of two taxpayers. The judgment in the case revoked pensions for union workers like Jerry Jordon, who has received a salary for over 30 years but has never taught in the classroom.
The problem isn’t confined to Pennsylvania either. Release time subsidies for union members, like educators and law enforcement personnel, occur all over the country. A similar litigation brought by the Goldwater Institute against the city of Phoenix failed to end that practice with police officers.
Likewise, a report last year generated by the Yankee Institute discovered that Connecticut doles out $4.1 million to state employees for union-related “time off.” The study did not include indirect costs, even though the fringe benefits “typically cost nearly half of payroll.”
However, Pennsylvania is trying to curtail the expenditure and the waste. At the end of March, the Senate Education Committee banned “ghost teachers” who draw full benefits while working for unions. Bill 494 was re-introduced by Republican state Senator Patrick Stefano this year. The legislation is still waiting on approval by the house and senate. The governor will also have to sign off on it before it becomes law.
The lawsuit in Reading illuminates the issue and brings it back into the spotlight. Karin Sweigart, the ATF’s deputy general counsel said that the problem “has been off people’s radar for a while.”
“Unless taxpayers were specific in requesting information on where their money was being allocated, they would not know about these salaries for ghost teachers,” Sweigart said. The ATF is arguing that the district laid off 100 teachers in 2012, yet the president of the REA union, Mitch Hettinger, has received full benefits since 2013.
In the 2015-2016 school year, Hettinger collected $131,000 in remuneration. According to the Fairness Center, that’s about 10 times the average per capita income of city residents.
“In addition to siphoning money from the district to pay their salaries,” Sweigart explained, “Reading’s ghost teachers have been illegally boosting their pensions while working for the union.”
According to Sweigart, that’s the reason the Fairness Center has filed a formal grievance on behalf of a member of the Public School Employee’s Retirement System (PSERS). The complaint is asking that any unearned credits assigned to absent teachers be rescinded.
The pension problem with union time in Reading is much like one that was submitted in the Allentown school district last year. Although the Allentown litigation ruling was a win, nothing has actually been done about it yet.
Former Allentown School Board member Scott Armstrong has said, “Teachers should be teaching. Taxpayers should expect their money to go towards education and not to labor organizing.”
The Fairness Center and the Americans for Fair Treatment agree. They are fighting to eliminate the inappropriate use of tax dollars in an education system that needs all the resources it can get.