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Lawsuit takes aim at Allentown ‘ghost teachers’

By   /   February 24, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 21 of 25 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers

The cash-strapped Allentown School District is using taxpayer money to pay the salary of the president of the local teachers union, which has taken more than $1.4 million in public funds since 1999 to pay union leadership.

Watchdog file photo

COSTLY GHOSTS: A lawsuit filed this week seeks to end the practice of Allentown teachers leaving the classroom to work full-time for the union.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court seeks to end the practice of letting the Allentown Education Association president work full-time for the union while drawing a publicly funded salary and benefits. The suit also wants the union to reimburse the district and the commonwealth for all costs associated with the practice.

The Fairness Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of Allentown taxpayers Steven Ramos and Scott Armstrong against the AEA, the Allentown School District, and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System.

“It’s absurd that Allentown taxpayers are being forced to pay a union employee’s salary along with health and pension benefits,” Ramos said in a statement. “How many students could be educated with the more than $1 million the district has given to a private organization? This misuse of public money must end.”

Release time allows unions to pull teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for them while they continue to earn a public salary and benefits as if they were still teaching.

“The union’s practice is both morally questionable and illegal,” Karin Sweigart, assistant general counsel for the Fairness Center, told Watchdog. “As soon as a teacher begins working full-time for a private organization like a union, he or she stops being a public employee. Therefore, that employee is no longer entitled to earn a public salary or additional benefits. The union is abusing taxpayers and the public education system to further its own goals.”

Debra Tretter, president of the Allentown Education Association, is making $81,608 this year ostensibly to teach kids, but she has not stepped foot in a classroom in almost seven years. Tretter works full-time for the AEA and is permitted to earn a public salary and benefits as part of the union contract with the district. Collective bargaining in Allentown allows one ghost teacher to work full-time for the union on release time, which is not uncommon in many Pennsylvania school districts.

Related: Taxpayers subsidize union politics of ‘ghost teachers’.

The AEA is not obligated to pay back any of those costs, and according to the Fairness Center and lawyers for the school district, the union has not reimbursed the district in decades. The district has been allowing partial release time since it was first collectively bargained in 1985. Full-time ghost teaching was negotiated into the teachers’ contract in 1990.

From 1999-2000, Darryl Skrovanek made $134,118 in salary and pension benefits as union president. From 2001-2009, Melvin Riddick’s salary and benefits total was $537,915, and Tretter will have taken $767,066 by the end of the school year.

Tretter and Allentown Superintendent C. Russell Mayo declined to comment.

Attorney John Freund III of King, Spry, Herman, Freund & Faul, LLC, which represents the district, said “As this is the first time this type of agreement has been challenged, the school board will need time to consider the issue before it takes an official position.”

A year ago, the Fairness Center brought a similar suit against the School District of Philadelphia, which is in the appeals process. Also last year, an Arizona judge ruled against a Phoenix police union doing the same thing with cops on release time and determined the practice to be unlawful.

Late last year, a bill was introduced in Harrisburg to block unions from pulling teachers out of the classroom to do union work on public time. The bill was referred to the House Education Committee.

Facing a $10.4 million budget deficit, the Allentown School District has been forced to make deep cuts. Over the last four years, the district laid off more than 466 employees, including 272 teachers since 2011. Layoffs are expected to continue for the next two or three years, according to published reports.

Armstrong served as a member of the Allentown School Board from 2011-2015. Ramos is an Allentown taxpayer and graduate of Allentown School District’s William Allen High School. Both of their children previously attended district schools.

“When I learned this arrangement was simply business as usual for the district and the union, I was outraged,” Armstrong said in a statement. “Teachers should not be let go in favor of a union employee, and taxpayers should not be compensating someone who is working for union interests rather than the public interest. That’s just common sense.”

Legislation to ban the practice has been introduced in Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Washington, according to the Goldwater Institute, which spearheaded the Phoenix police union case. In addition to Pennsylvania, lawsuits challenging ghost public employees have been filed in Idaho and Michigan.

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.