Former board member files suit seeking to end practice of Pennsylvania district paying salary of teacher released from teaching duties while serving as president of teachers union

The Morning Call reports that Scott Armstrong, a former member of the  Allentown School Board, has filed suit in a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court seeking to end the long-held practice of releasing the union president from classroom duties while continuing to pay that person’s salary. Plaintiffs Armstrong and Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos are being represented by The Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm.

The plaintiffs are requesting that the union reimburse the district, with interest, for salary, benefits and pension credits, which they say exceed $1.3 million since the practice began more than 25 years ago. The suit characterizes teachers union President Debbie Tretter, who has led the union since 2009, as a “ghost teacher.” Her salary is $81,608 this year. “That will be a significant savings to the taxpayers and the district if the court provides a remedy. …This legal action would not be necessary if the board would move to end the practice,” Armstrong said.

A similar case involving the Philadelphia School District teachers union and The Fairness Center has not yet been resolved. Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, called the Allentown case “uncharted legal territory.”

Allentown district solicitor John Freund said the Public School Employees’ Retirement Code requires the union to reimburse the district for salary and benefits when leave is given to someone to work full time as a union officer. The union currently does not reimburse the district. He also said it’s unclear if the reimbursement can be waived through the collective bargaining process for a contract. Since 1990, the Allentown union president has been released from teaching under the teachers contracts.

Freund also said there is no precedent for a case like this. “I believe this is likely a matter of first impression for the courts,” Freund said. “We will have to wait to see what happens.”

The lawsuit points to the district’s financial status in making a case against the practice. “The district has been in financial distress for many years,” the lawsuit states. “Yet despite its financial woes, since 1990 the district has somehow had enough money to pay the salary and benefits of an individual who doesn’t work for the district. …”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it stands by the practice. “For us, this is another nuisance suit filed by a right-wing group that exists to harass educators, so it’s important to consider the source,” spokesman David Broderic said. “[Tretter] spends her life serving kids.” Broderic didn’t have a number for how many union presidents in the state are released from teaching, but said he believes Allentown is not the only one. It’s typically more common in larger school districts, he said.

The Allentown district and teachers union are negotiating a contract. Last month, a fact-finding report done by a third party said the union president should still be released from classroom duties because of the size of the district. The district has 1,135 teachers and more than 16,000 students. The fact-finder’s report said Tretter needs to work full time as a union president to serve as an “instrument for resolution of disputes before they bloom as grievances, unfair labor practice charges, and complaints before various state and local education and fair employment agencies.”

Karin Sweigart, an attorney with The Fairness Center, is arguing that the practice of releasing a union president from teaching duties and remaining on district payroll violates the state Education Code. She said the Fairness Center took up this case because a taxpayer contacted the group. Sweigart cited the Arizona court case Cheatham v. Diciccio, in which two taxpayers challenged the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association for keeping the union president on payroll while that person was released from duties. In 2014, a judge ruled release time was unconstitutional.

Source: The Morning Call, 2/24/16, By Jacqueline Palochko

[Editor’s Note: In its press release announcing the suit, The Fairness Center states: Allentown School District, the third largest in the state, has consistently struggled financially. Since 2011, the district has laid off 272 teachers. Incredibly, during those layoffs, a classroom teacher lost a job so a ghost teacher could stay on the district’s payroll. In an insult to dedicated teachers, the union president accrues seniority over classroom teachers while skipping school to work for the union. The legal complaint makes four claims: (1) Full release time is void under the Pennsylvania Constitution; (2) Full release time is void because the parties lack capacity; (3) Full release time is void because the district bargained away its control over a public employee; and (4) Full release time violates public policy.

John Freund is a member of the NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys.]


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