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Taxpayers subsidize union politics of ‘ghost teachers’

By   /   February 17, 2016  /   No Comments

Part 20 of 25 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers

Pennsylvania taxpayers are funding political activities performed by so-called ghost teachers working for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, according to union leadership’s own campaign literature touting their re-election.

School District of Philadelphia

POLITICAL GHOSTS: The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers makes no secret of its use of ghost teachers to act as political operatives.

Even though many of them stopped teaching years ago, Philadelphia ghost teachers continue to receive a public salary, benefits, pension and accrue seniority as if they were still in the classroom, while state and city taxpayers are paying them to do political work for the union.

The School District of Philadelphia allows the PFT to pull up to 63 teachers out of the classroom each year to work full-time for the union as part of its teachers contract. The union has said most of those ghost teachers act as information officers, but the union revealed recently that some teachers on release time are employed as political operatives.

Hillary Linardopoulos, who has not taught in a classroom since 2009, “coordinates much of our political activism and legislative involvement,” according to an op-ed penned by union members that endorses its current leadership team going into an upcoming internal election. Since leaving the classroom, her taxpayer-funded salary has almost doubled to $91,156.

The PFT says it reimburses the district for ghost teacher wages, but documentation supporting that claim was not immediately available from the union.

“The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is, no doubt, a political machine,” says David Osborne a lawyer for the Fairness Center, which brought a lawsuit against the union and the Philadelphia school district a year ago to stop the practice. “It takes some of the best and brightest teachers out of the classroom to work as full-time political operatives.”

Related: Philly ghost teachers made more than $1.7 million last year.

Candidates running for positions on the PFT’s collective bargaining team have all been on leave from the classroom for years, according to documents obtained by Watchdog. Eight ghost teachers running for office earned a total of $874,305 last year working full-time for the union. On average, those eight individuals have been on leave for an average of 16 years. They’ve also received annual raises, despite a three-year wage freeze while the district and union have failed to negotiate a new teachers’ contract.

Union President Jerry Jordan and Vice President Arlene Kempin have been on leave for more than 30 years and have worked exclusively for the union longer than they taught in the classroom.

Ghost teachers continue to accrue seniority as if they have been teaching all along. If layoffs become necessary, that could give them an advantage over less experienced teachers under Pennsylvania’s “last in, first out” termination policies.

Touting victories on the local and state level last year, PFT political operatives help to mobilize and canvass voters, man phone banks and influence union members to support union-backed candidates. In the last two years, those candidates included Democrats Tom Wolf for governor, Helen Gym for City Council, Jim Kenney for mayor and three State Supreme Court justices.

“On the political front, we have worked to strengthen our collective political prowess by engaging our members,” ghost teachers Linardopoulos and Wendy Coleman wrote in the op-ed. “The work and activism of these members, led by the [collective bargaining] team, has ensured tremendous electoral victories.”  

While experienced teachers are off doing union business, the School District of Philadelphia has been struggling to find teachers for more than a year. As of this month, the district was still looking to fill 184 full-time teaching vacancies, while the daily fill rate for substitute teachers was just over 50 percent.

The Fairness Center’s lawsuit is on appeal to the Commonwealth Court on the issue of whether its client, Americans for Fair Treatment, has standing to challenge the practice. An oral argument is tentatively scheduled for early May.

An Arizona judge stopped Phoenix cops from taking time off the job to work for their union last year, which could establish a precedent in Pennsylvania.

State lawmakers have also taken issue with the practice of ghost teachers. Last year, state Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, introduced a bill to put an end to the practice. House Bill 1649, which was referred to the House Education Committee, would bar Philadelphia public school teachers from earning pay and benefits and accruing time toward their pension while doing union work.

State Sen. Pat Stefano, R-32nd District, also plans to introduce a bill on the subject this year. Stefano’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“Our students and taxpayers deserve better than these phantom educators,” Phillips-Hill has said. “This legislation would end full-time union leave and put teachers back in the classroom.”

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.