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Teachers union gets free office space from broke Philly school district

By   /   April 8, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

By Evan Grossman | Watchdog.org

While local students are forced to go without basic supplies like toilet paper and textbooks, the School District of Philadelphia is giving away thousands of dollars of free office space each year to the local teachers union.

Photo by Evan Grossman | Watchdog.org

OFFICE SPACE: The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers does not have to pay for this office, where it conducts private union business on public property at the School District of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has long maintained a station at district headquarters at 440 North Broad Street, provided free of charge. It’s part of a handshake agreement that goes back “50 or 60 years,” according to PFT vice president Arlene Kempin.

A similar office space in Center City could cost more than $60 per square foot. At those rates, the PFT is getting upwards of $16,800 in free space each year from taxpayers who are providing a windowless, 14’ x 20’ office to do private, union work on public time and property.

That free office space — and the union employees who work there while being paid by the district, accruing seniority and earning a public pension despite leaving the classroom — is being questioned at a time when the school district, facing an $80 million deficit, struggles to pay for basic educational necessities.

“Allowing teachers to work full-time for the PFT — a private political organization — while on the public payroll is bad enough,” Fairness Center lead counsel David Osborne said. “Providing them free office space adds insult to taxpayers’ injury and is likely also an illegal use of public resources.”

The union does pay for its own telephone lines and Internet connections, according to district spokesman Fernando Gallard, but does not contribute to other utility or custodial costs associated with maintaining the office space.

The arrangement is unique: American Federation of Teachers branches in New York City and Boston, for example, are not provided free office space at their respective district headquarters.

Earlier this year, the Fairness Center, a public interest law firm that represents employees against unions, filed a lawsuit against the school district and the PFT over the contracted practice of allowing so-called “ghost teachers” like Kempin — who has been on leave since 1983 — to work for the union while drawing a district salary, accrued seniority, benefits and pension, as if she was still in the classroom.

There are at least 20 full-time PFT employees the Fairness Center says are doing union work on public time. In this case, it’s also being done on public premises.

“This is another example of the cozy relationship between the PFT and the district that benefits the union at taxpayers’ expense,” Osborne said. “The district’s first priority should be serving Philadelphia students and families well, not looking out for a politically connected teachers union staffers.”

Gallard said housing the PFT’s satellite office is a matter of convenience for both organizations.

Kempin said most of her work involves getting human resources, payroll and certification questions answered for union members. Being steps away from district offices, she said, eliminates the need to make phone calls or leave messages. Matters can be handled immediately, she said.

The district houses two other outside agencies at the Education Center: The city controller occupies a space for reviewing school finances and the Office of Safe School Advocates, a state-run unit offering services for victims of violence in Philly schools, also maintains an office there.

In 2005, the School Reform Commission, which controls the district, authorized the $45 million purchase of 440 North Broad. It sank another $90 million into renovations and the district still owes more than $100 million on the building.

At the time it was purchased 10 years ago, there were more than 1,500 administrative employees working for the district. After deep cuts the past few years, there are only 590 left.

“We have a lot of space here,” Gallard said, noting the teachers union bunker wasn’t putting anyone out on the street.

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Evan was formerly a Pennsylvania-based education reporter for Watchdog.org.