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Judge grants ‘ghost teachers’ freedom to roam

By   /   July 28, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 13 of 25 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers

By Evan Grossman | Watchdog.org

It’s OK for teachers to leave the classroom to work elsewhere —all the time drawing a school salary and benefits.

Philadelphia Judge Linda Carpenter has ruled a lawsuit seeking to stop “ghost teachers” from doing union work on school time lacked sufficient facts to support the case.

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GHOST TOWN: A Philadelphia judge doesn’t have a problem with teachers leaving the classroom to go work for the union while continuing to draw a school salary, benefits, and accruing seniority as if they were still on the job.

Earlier this year, the Fairness Center, a free legal service that defends employees against unjust labor practices, filed the lawsuit in Philadelphia on behalf of Americans for Fair Treatment.

The suit against the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School District of Philadelphia argued that teachers should not be allowed to vacate their positions to take full-time work with the union while still drawing a public salary, benefits and accruing seniority.

Using ghost teachers for union tasks is not exclusive to Philadelphia — or to teacher unions. But the Fairness Center said the system in Philly goes unchecked. While some smaller districts, such as Scranton and Allentown, allow a few teachers to work for the union each year, as many as 63 Philly teachers are eligible to leave the classroom.

Some districts don’t pay their ghost teachers for doing union work and cap their release time, but Philadelphia teachers are permitted to work for the union for decades and continue to enjoy the benefits of their public employment packages.

The Fairness Center plans to appeal Carpenter’s ruling.

“Unfortunately, this ruling perpetuates the PFT’s abusive ‘ghost teacher’ scheme and turns a deaf ear to the voices of Philadelphia teachers,” said David Osborne, general counsel for the Fairness Center. “The PFT is intent on making teachers’ jobs even more difficult by raiding the classroom as a means to staff union offices. Teachers, students and taxpayers are harmed when union leaders are allowed to take school district employees out of the classroom for decades, even while they receive all incidences of district employment.”

The practice, mandated in the contract between the district and the PFT, has been going on for more than 50 years. According to the PFT, most of these ghost teachers take on roles as information officers and building reps who meet with union members.

“It’s common sense that our government should not be staffing union offices,” Osborne said. “Ghost teachers actually gain seniority over newer classroom teachers who work with students every day. This is another indication that PFT leaders prioritize themselves over teachers and students.”

The Fairness Center says no evidence exists the state has been reimbursed for public pension costs, amounting to $1 million since 1999; the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement Program told Watchdog the practice does not seem to have contributed to a pension gap.

PFT President Jerry Jordan has been on leave from the classroom for more than 30 years, and Vice President Arlene Kempin has not taught since 1983. Half of the 18 ghost teachers working for the union last year had been on extended leave since at least 2008, with most earning north of $100,000 each year.

“We are very happy that the Court of Common Pleas has dismissed the Fairness Center’s frivolous anti-union lawsuit,” Jordan said. “While the ruling is gratifying, it is very distressing that any organization would devote so much time and money on lawsuits designed to vilify the PFT. If they are truly concerned about the impact on Philly’s classrooms, they could use these resources to help restore vital programs and services to schoolchildren.”

Last year, up to 18 ghost teachers were paid more than $1.7 million in salary and benefits, which the union pays back to the district. Ghost teachers rack up seniority while working for the union as if they never left the classroom, which affects retirement entitlements and could dictate job security as they get credit for work experience they never actually accrue.

Pennsylvania determines furloughs for teachers by a “last in, first out” policy, which protects more experienced teachers from losing their jobs while teachers with less time on the job, no matter how effective they may be in the classroom, are the first to go.

The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act, which is making its way through the Senate, aims to end that policy, as well as reform teacher tenure requirements.

“Not once has the PFT explained how pulling teachers out of the classroom is good for Philadelphia teachers and students,” Osborne said. “ I expect that PFT leaders will have to explain themselves to a judge before this is all over.”

Part of 25 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers


Evan is a Pennsylvania-based education reporter for Watchdog.org. An Emmy Award-winning documentary writer, his work has also appeared on RollingStone.com, MensJournal.com, in the pages of the New York Post, and other outlets. His investigative work covering the School District of Philadelphia for Watchdog has been picked up by FOX News, NBC10 Philadelphia, Philadelphia Magazine, PhillyVoice.com and BillyPenn.com, and his series chronicling "ghost teachers" in Philadelphia led to the introduction of a law that would outlaw the practice of pulling teachers from the classroom to work full-time for the local teachers union. Follow him on Twitter @EGwatchdog or email Evan at egrossman@watchdog.org with tips.