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Allentown schools cry poverty, pay ‘ghost teachers’

By   /   March 16, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 23 of 27 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers

The Allentown Board of School Directors approved a new teachers contract last week that preserves the practice of allowing teachers to collect government paychecks while doing work for the local teachers union.

Since 1990, the cash-strapped school district has spent more than $1 million in taxpayers’ money on salaries and benefits for the president of the Allentown Education Association. The AEA is not obligated to repay any of the money.

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PARANORMAL PAYROLL: The Allentown Board of School Directors approved a controversial ghost teachers contract.

The practice, known as “release time,” is permitted under Article 28 of the Allentown teachers’ contract. It allows for AEA President Debbie Tretter to receive an $81,000 taxpayer-funded salary and benefits as if she were still teaching in the classroom. The agreement is being challenged in a lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court.

In February, the Fairness Center, a non-profit legal service that defends workers against unions, filed a complaint challenging the district’s policy to allow Tretter and other union bosses, also called “ghost teachers,” to collect a public salary.

Of eight Allentown school board directors, only one voted against the teachers’ contract last week. Michael Welsh said he wasn’t comfortable with the release-time provision.

“Many of my constituents were not aware this practice existed in our district and expressed their concerns to me,” Welsh told Watchdog. “It was my belief that the best settlement would have included a sharing of cost between the district and the union for this position, with the return of the union president to at least half-time classroom instruction. As this was not part of the final contract, I could not support it.”

School Board President David Zimmerman did not respond to a request for comment.

Tretter said “the members of AEA are happy with the new contract” but declined to speak about the lawsuit. The new teachers contract also included salary bumps and provisions to increase security for teachers in the classroom.

Karin Sweigart, a Fairness Center attorney, said the Allentown board’s contract vote was “outrageous.”

“The district is clearly struggling financially, yet the school board doubled down on a policy that’s robbed the district of more than $1.3 million since 2000,” she said. “Allentown students and taxpayers deserve better.”

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.

“At the same time the school district wants to borrow up to $64 million dollars just to stay open, it’s outrageous the board would vote to use taxpayer dollars to continue funding an employee of a private organization,” Sweigart said.

The AEA has until the end of March to respond to the lawsuit. The union is not obligated to pay back any release time costs. The district has been allowing partial release time since it was first collectively bargained in 1985.

Related: Senate bill aims to bust ‘ghost teachers.’

A year ago, a similar suit was filed in Philadelphia, where collective bargaining allows up to 63 teachers to leave the classroom to work full-time for the local teachers union. A Watchdog investigation found some of those teachers are paid to do political work for the union.

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. In Pittsburgh, ghost teachers were found to be making up to $1.02 million each year.

The state is also required to continue making pension contributions for teachers on union leave, and has spent more than $1 million doing so since 2000.

Two pieces of legislation to ban ghost teachers have been introduced in the state legislature.

Last week, Sen. Pat Stefano, R-32nd district, introduced SB1140, which intends to “bar public school teachers from working full-time for their collective bargaining agent while remaining on their district’s payroll.”

“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.”

Last year, a House bill introduced by Reps. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Jim Christiana, R-Beaver/Washington, proposed busting ghost teachers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Both bills currently sit with the House Education Committee.

Part of 27 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

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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 [email protected] with tips.