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Lawsuit: Ghost teachers cost Pennsylvania school district more than $500,000

By   /   June 9, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

A lawsuit filed in Berks County Court last week aims to end a Pennsylvania school district’s practice of paying full-time officers of teachers unions with taxpayer dollars.

An Oklahoma City-based nonprofit group called Americans for Fair Treatment filed the lawsuit against the Reading School District with the help of the Fairness Center in Harrisburg. The lawsuit charges that since 2011, more than $500,000 in tax funds have been used to pay for “ghost teachers,” or those who are paid as if they had jobs in public classrooms but are actually employed by the Reading Education Association.

The plaintiffs are seeking the return of the funds, including more than $400,000 in salaries, about $50,000 in pension contributions and about $73,000 in health benefits.  They allege the funds were illegally funneled to officers of the union local.

“It’s clear that the Public School Code does not provide authority for this …” Karin Sweigart, deputy general counsel for the Fairness Center, told Watchdog.org. “At the end of the day, teachers should be paid to teach.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) has received a copy of the complaint and is now reviewing it, according to PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever.

“The issue of teachers on full-time release is not a common practice, but it does exist,” especially in larger districts, Keever told Watchdog.org.

The PSEA will provide legal representation on behalf of the Reading local singled out in the lawsuit, he said. The association views the practice of school districts paying regular salaries to classroom teachers who actually work for teachers unions as legal and sensible, according to Keever.

“There is a very practical reason for it,” Keever said. “A teacher acting as a union officer has a very difficult time maintaining his or her classroom full of students and at the same time … go to all of the meetings for which a union representative is either contractually or legally required to attend.”

He described the Fairness Center as an organization that regularly looks to find fault with public employee unions.

“They seem to have a singular focus to file against public employee unions,” Keever said.

But the Fairness Center has had some success from a past lawsuit filed against the Allentown Education Association, whose presidents had also engaged in ghost-teaching. As a result of that lawsuit, the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System yanked pension credits that had been going to the Allentown officers.

The situation with ghost teachers goes beyond individual school districts, however, according to James Paul, a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, The foundation’s research shows that teachers’ collective bargaining contracts in the state give 196 employees the ability to work full-time for their unions while earning public-school compensation.

Indeed, 109 of the state’s school districts – 22 percent of the total – provide for some degree of ghost-teaching, the Commonwealth Foundation’s study reports. The whole issue boils down to the idea that tax-funded teacher salaries should not be given to those who work full-time for their unions, Paul said.

“Millions of dollars over multiple decades have been redirected out of the classrooms,” he told Watchdog.org.

Paul pointed out that the issue has also been taken up in the state legislature. The Senate Education Committee earlier this spring passed SB 494, authored by Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette County. The bill would have altered the Public School Code to ban teachers from working full-time for a union while collecting teacher paychecks.

“Ultimately, the cleanest solution would be legislation …” Paul said. “The current [legislative] session will go to the end of 2018, so there’s a good chance the Senate could continue work on this bill.”

The bill is unlikely to advance in the coming weeks, however, according to Paul. That’s because lawmakers will focus mainly on the state budget during the month of June.

Stefano, the bill’s author, did not respond to Watchdog.org’s request for comment, but the senator has expressed concern that the practice of ghost teaching is improper and an affront to state taxpayers.

“This should not be allowed or tolerated because it is a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars and drains money and resources away from our classrooms and our students,” Stefano said in a previous statement about the bill.

Paul echoed those sentiments, saying that public employee unions are private organizations that should not receive public funds.

“The fact that ghost teaching exists … speaks to the power of teachers unions in our state,” he said, adding that other special interests could only dream of having such a beneficial financial arrangement.

But Keever said the role of union officials within school districts is broader than many people think. A union officer often acts as an ombudsman for teachers and works in support of the efficient operation of the district, he said.

And because ghost teaching is authorized in teacher contracts around the state, many school boards obviously see the practice as a good idea, he said.

“In every situation where it exists, it was bargained for in good faith,” Keever said.