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Senate bill aims to bust ‘ghost teachers’

By   /   March 14, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 22 of 28 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers

A Senate bill introduced last week seeks to stop the practice of teachers leaving the classroom to work full-time for their unions.

School District of Philadelphia

GHOST BUSTERS: Two pieces of legislation introduced in Harrisburg aim to stop the practice of paying teachers a public salary and benefits while they work full-time for their unions.

It is the second measure introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature this year intended to bust so-called ghost teachers.

Also known as “release time” or “official time,” the practice allows Pennsylvania teachers to do union work while still earning a taxpayer-funded salary and benefits. SB1140 introduced last week by Sen. Pat Stefano, R-32nd district, seeks to stop the practice in all Pennsylvania districts.

“During an era of tight budgets and taxpayer concerns over increasing education costs, it is imperative that teachers on a school district’s payroll actually be in a classroom, teaching students,” Stefano said. “By banning this provision in collective bargaining agreements, this legislation will ensure a more effective use of public school resources and funds.”

This is the second piece of legislation introduced in Harrisburg designed to curb the practice. Last year, a House bill introduced by Reps. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Jim Christiana, R-Beaver/Washington, proposed blocking the practice in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“Our students and taxpayers deserve better than these phantom educators,” said Phillips-Hill, a former school board member.

HB1649 still sits with the House Education Committee.

While legislation is pending, there are also two active lawsuits making their way through the courts that could put ghost teachers back in the classroom. The Fairness Center, a free legal service that represents employees against unions, filed a lawsuit in 2015 in Philadelphia and earlier this year in Allentown to stop the practice in those districts.

According to their teachers’ contracts, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers can take up to 63 teachers out of the classroom each year to do union work. While The PFT maintains it pays the district back for those costs, a Watchdog investigation revealed several of those teachers do full-time political work for the union while still drawing a public pension and job seniority.

At least 18 Philadelphia teachers received more than $1.7 million last year while performing union work during school hours. Union president Jerry Jordan and vice president Arlene Kepin have been working on release time for more than 30 years.

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

In Pittsburgh, ghost teachers were found to be making up to $1.02 million each year, and the Allentown School District has been paying the salary and benefits for the president of the Allentown Education Association for more than 20 years. The district approved a new teachers’ contract last week that allows the practice to continue.

Debra Tretter, president of the Allentown teachers union, is drawing a salary of $81,608, paid for by local taxpayers.

Allentown schools have eliminated more than 466 jobs over the last four years.

“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.”

The state is still required to make its contributions to cover the pensions of teachers on union leave, and has spent more than $1 million doing so since 2000, according to Stefano.

While school districts pay for teachers not to teach, cash-strapped Philadelphia schools have been short-staffed all year and are in need of more than 200 full-time teachers and hundreds of substitutes each day.

“This legislation will return taxpayer resources to the classroom by putting an end to the practice of ‘full-time union leave,'” Stefano said. “Teachers will be in the classroom, rather than working for a private organization while being paid by taxpayer dollars.”

Part of 28 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers
  1. Philly ghost teachers made more than $1.7M last year
  2. Week in Review: Plenty of scary news for Pennsylvania taxpayers
  3. PA Week in Review: Beer battles continue dispute veto of liquor bill
  4. Week in Review: Kane target of more investigations
  5. Pennsylvania labor union leaders blast 401(k) plans they offer their own staff
  6. Pennsylvania labor union leaders blast 401(k) plans they offer their own staff
  7. Education week-in-review: Ghosts and quotas
  8. Lawsuit aims to bust Philadelphia ‘ghost teachers’
  9. Lawsuit aims to bust Philadelphia ‘ghost teachers’
  10. Fairness group files lawsuit over ‘ghost teachers’
  11. Philly ghost teachers made more than $1.7M last year
  12. Education week-in-review: Ghost teachers and the ghost of Jim Crow
  13. Judge grants ‘ghost teachers’ freedom to roam
  14. How lawyers plan to bust Philadelphia’s ‘ghost teachers’
  15. How lawyers plan to bust Philadelphia’s ‘ghost teachers’
  16. Pennsylvania lawmakers plan to take on ‘ghost teachers’
  17. Lawmakers plan to take on ‘ghost teachers’
  18. Pennsylvania lawmakers introduce a bill to bust ‘ghost teachers’
  19. Pennsylvania lawmakers introduce a bill to bust ‘ghost teachers’
  20. Taxpayers subsidize union politics of ‘ghost teachers’
  21. Lawsuit takes aim at Allentown ‘ghost teachers’
  22. Senate bill aims to bust ‘ghost teachers’
  23. Allentown schools cry poverty, pay ‘ghost teachers’
  24. Study: Absent Philly teachers cost district millions
  25. Philly ‘ghost teachers’ making $1.5 million this year
  26. Pension agency: Ghost teachers ‘must be removed’
  27. New bill to bust ‘ghost teachers’ advances
  28. Pennsylvania pension agency docks ‘ghost teachers’ credit

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