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Lawmakers eyeball teachers who organize on taxpayer’s dime

By   /   March 28, 2013  /   No Comments

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Tennessee law allows a teacher elected president of the state’s largest teachers’ union to march into the local director of schools’ office and announce plans to take the next two years off.

The teacher may be gone, but his benefits remain and accumulate, even if those two years are spent, for example, outside the classroom engaging in political activities for the Tennessee Education Association. While away, these teachers do not earn a teaching salary from their local school districts, but they do get six-figure pay as state TEA presidents. 

Gera Summerford

“If a teacher is elected president of TEA, then state law makes it absolutely mandatory that the director of schools has to go along with it — even if this person is the only physics teacher in the entire school system,” said Tim Brinegar, director of government relations for the Professional Educators of Tennessee, which is not a union.

“This is paying people to do union business on government time.”

As the law now stands, an unqualified substitute teacher might come in to replace that physics teacher, for example.

The current state president of TEA, Gera Summerford, doesn’t deny that an unqualified teacher could take over the classroom from a qualified one — nor does she see a problem.

“That could happen, I suppose. Those agreements, however, are done at the local level, and I’m sure that the local boards of education take all that into account. So why prohibit this?” Summerford asks.

“The system is working fine as it is,” she added.

State TEA presidents are entitled to release time, but they cannot receive a salary from their local school districts while away from school, according to state law. Local TEA presidents differ in that they actually receive their salaries while away from their jobs. Local TEA presidents might have paid release time for as long as 70 days, and taxpayers foot the bill, Bowman said.

Brinegar and J.C. Bowman, the executive director of PET, however, said that release time is a privilege that only TEA members may enjoy.

PET is advocating two new proposed laws that would give the director of schools more say in what teachers may and may not do when they become TEA presidents, whether at the state or local levels. Both bills are making their way through the Tennessee General Assembly.

The first of the two proposed laws would prevent state TEA presidents from earning salary scale increases while away from the classroom. The second bill mandates that TEA fully reimburse school districts for paid leave time if and when its teachers are away serving as local TEA presidents. Both bills specify that teachers who receive leave time, whether paid or unpaid, must first receive permission from their local school districts before leaving.

“Also, if these teachers who become state presidents are gone for two years or four years, then they’re committing to being in that school system for two years or four years more, whatever the duration is, as a teacher. You can’t just serve as state president, come back and then retire,” Bowman said.

Local TEA presidents, meanwhile, now receive compensation from TEA in addition to the their teachers’ salaries.

“The local TEA presidents are, in effect, double dipping,” Bowman said.

J.C. Bowman

PET officials told Tennessee Watchdog they are optimistic about the bills’ chances.

This type of legislation wouldn’t have been possible without a recent Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, Brinegar said.

“TEA has had such a stranglehold of the Legislature when it was run by the Democrats. You couldn’t have even come close to getting something like this passed. Certain Republicans will vote against this, we’re sure, at least the ones who have taken money from the unions.”

Summerford told Tennessee Watchdog there is no need to change state law to this extent. She said taxpayers of her local school district benefit from the law, as currently written.

“My school is in fine shape. There is an excellent teacher in my place. I may be saving my school some money because the person that they hired is probably making less salary than I did when I was there,” she said.

Bowman, however, said TEA’s priorities are misguided.

“Money should be allocated primarily to instruct kids. These teachers, though, are the blob. They’re outside the arena. If I’m a taxpayer out there I’m going to be upset that my dollars are going to a bureaucrat,” Bowman said.

Problems with taxpayer-subsidized union activity also exist at the federal level.

Watchdog reporter Kevin Mooney reported last month on Congressional legislation that would end “official time” — a controversial practice that allows federal employees to conduct union business during working hours unrelated to their work responsibilities. Critics say that official time is a government subsidy for union activity.

TEA is made up of about 52,000 teachers and other school personnel, according to its website.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org

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Chris Butler is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in Nashville. Contact him at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org and follow him on Facebook at "Chris-Butler-WriterJournalist" or on Twitter at cdbutler1204.

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