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Pennsylvania pension agency docks ‘ghost teachers’ credit

By   /   June 28, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

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

The Public School Employees’ Retirement System, the agency that administers the pensions of Pennsylvania teachers, is revoking pension credits accrued by so-called ghost teachers working for an Allentown teachers union.

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PENSION PLAN: The Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System evoked a total of $76,891.93 connected to union heads that may be returned to the Allentown School District.

In a brief filed in Commonwealth Court as part of a lawsuit seeking to stop the practice of teachers leaving the classroom to work full-time for the Allentown Education Association, PSERS said those employees are not eligible to receive pension credits for the time they worked exclusively for the union.

PSERS revoked a total of $76,891.93 connected to AEA President Debra Tretter and former president Melvin Riddick that may be returned to the Allentown School District. The agency ruled more than $1 million in public wages for the past two union heads does not legally qualify for retirement credit.

Tretter and Riddick are appealing the decision and their lawyers maintain they should be eligible for their total pensions because even while they worked for the union, they were also still employed by the district.

“PSERS legally agrees that the AEA President is not entitled to receive retirement credit while on ‘full release time’ under the facts presented in the pleadings,” the brief states. “Accordingly, PSERS has removed all credited service, salary and contributions reported while Ms. Tretter and Mr. Riddick were on ‘full release time’ and not on a ‘leave with collective bargaining organization’ as provided under Sections 8102 and 8302(b) of the Retirement Code, 24 Pa.C.S. § § 8102 and 8302(b).”

Each year, teachers unions across Pennsylvania pull teachers out of classrooms to work full-time as information officers, union leaders or political operatives. Known as “release time” or “official time,” those employees continue to draw a public salary, benefits and school seniority as if they were still on the job.

Since 2000, the Allentown School District has shelled out more than $1.3 million to pay the salary and benefits of multiple union presidents.

The Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm, has filed multiple lawsuits against Pennsylvania teachers unions, including the AEA, seeking to stop the practice.

“We are pleased that PSERS is poised to return the money that rightfully belongs to the district and to taxpayers,” said Karin Sweigart, assistant general counsel of the Fairness Center. “Common sense says employees of a private organization should not be eligible for a taxpayer-funded salary, benefits, and retirement credit.”

The cash-strapped Allentown School District has laid off hundreds of teachers the past four years and faces a $10 million budget deficit but continues to use taxpayer money to pay the salary of the president of the local teachers union. Since 1999, the district has paid union leaders more than $1.4 million in public funds.

Debra Tretter, president of the AEA, 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.

Collective bargaining in Allentown allows one ghost teacher to work full-time for the union on release time.

The AEA is not obligated to pay back any of those costs, and 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.

RELATED: Philly ‘ghost teachers’ making $1.5 million this year

PSERS indicated in the brief it may seek retirement credit for Allentown union heads going back to the early 1990s.

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.

“Allentown residents shouldn’t be paying for ghost teachers who leave the classroom for years on end to work for the union,” Sweigart said. “This is a first step toward restoring to taxpayers money that’s been illegally diverted to fund a private organization’s employees.”

While the practice was permitted through collective bargaining, PSERS ruled that teachers can only earn retirement credit for time spent teaching.

PSERS concluded, “an active member is permitted to receive retirement credit while working for a collective bargaining organization provided: (1) at least half the members of the organization are members of PSERS; (2) the employer approves the leave; (3) the collective bargaining organization reimburses the employer for the member’s salary and benefits; (4) the member works full-time; and (5) the employer reports only the salary the member would have earned as a school employee.”

The Fairness Center is also challenging the practice in Philadelphia, where up to 63 teachers can leave the classroom each year to work exclusively for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Lawmakers are also attempting to bust ghost teachers. Three separate bills are working their way through Harrisburg that would either limit or outlaw the practice altogether.

The furthest along of the three is House Bill 2125, sponsored by state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny. It would place strict regulations on the number of ghost teachers permitted across the state.

The bill cleared the House Education Committee earlier this month.

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.