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Pension agency: Ghost teachers ‘must be removed’

By   /   June 1, 2016  /   No Comments

Part 26 of 28 in the series Pennsylvania's Ghost Teachers

The people who run Pennsylvania’s teacher-retirement system want to revoke the benefits of an Allentown “ghost teacher” who works for the union and hasn’t taught in a classroom in seven years.

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PENSION PLAN: The Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System is seeking to dock a teachers union president for the years she has not worked in a classroom.

The Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) filed a brief in Commonwealth Court stating Allentown teachers union president Deb Tretter should not be receiving retirement credit while working exclusively for the union.

Tretter hasn’t taught students since 2009, but she continues to draw a district salary, benefits and pension. PSERS said the retirement credits she built up since working for the Allentown Education Association “must be removed.”

Release time, or sometimes known as “official time,” allows teachers to leave the classroom to work for their union while still taking a salary from the district, including health care and retirement benefits. These so-called ghost teachers also accrue seniority as if they work in schools during their leave.

The practice is being challenged in Commonwealth Court by Scott Armstrong, a former Allentown district board member, and Steven Ramos, a local taxpayer. They are represented by the Fairness Center, a nonprofit legal service.

“We are pleased PSERS has agreed that the taxpayers of Allentown and Pennsylvania should not be forced to fund the retirement of a private employee,” said Karin Sweigart, assistant general counsel of the Fairness Center.

“For years, the current AEA president has received taxpayer-funded salary, benefits and retirement credit as if she were a teacher,” she said. “PSERS’s decision is the first step toward restoring to the people of Allentown and Pennsylvania the money illegally diverted to a private endeavor.”

Tretter has been a ghost teacher for more than six years, but the practice has gone on in Allentown for much longer.

Taxpayers have paid more than $1.3 million for the salary and benefits of various Allentown union presidents since 2000. Tretter’s base salary is $81,608 and with other benefits, the district is paying a total of $126,723 for her not to teach.

The practice of paying ghost teachers is collectively bargained as part of the local union contract.

Philadelphia, which is also being challenged by the Fairness Center in a separate suit, allows up to 63 teachers to work for the union each year. Some Philadelphia Federation of Teachers leaders have been working as ghost teachers for more than 30 years.

Related: Allentown schools cry poverty, pay ‘ghost teachers.’

During the current school year, 16 Philadelphia ghost teachers are earning $1.5 million to work as information officers and political liaisons for the PFT. While the School District of Philadelphia says it is reimbursed for those charges, the Allentown School District gets nothing back for Tretter’s expenses.

Earlier this year, Republican state Sen. Pat Stefano 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.”

The bills sits with the House Education Committee, along with a House measure sponsored by state Reps. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, that would ban the practice in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

In March, the Allentown school board overwhelmingly approved a new four-year teachers contract that continues to include the ghost teachers provision. The contract was passed by a 7-1 margin and School Director Michael Welsh was the only vote against.

“I voted against the contract because of this provision,” Welsh told Watchdog. “I simply do not feel that the practice serves the district or taxpayers well.”

His fellow directors didn’t agree with Welsh, but now the state agency that runs public school teacher pensions apparently also shares his concern about ghost teachers.

“Pennsylvania’s public retirement system already faces a $50 billion-plus unfunded liability,” Sweigart said. “It’s outrageous that anyone would think it appropriate to put the system at even greater risk by siphoning public funds for private interest. We are encouraged that PSERS is taking steps to stop this illegal practice, and we look forward to continuing to fight in court to fully end the union’s abuse of taxpayer trust.”

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.