In a victory for taxpayers, the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) has revoked pension credit illegally given to Allentown “ghost teachers” who were hired to teach but instead worked full-time for the local teachers’ union.
Even as the Allentown School District laid off 272 teachers in the past five years, the district used tax dollars to fund the salary and benefits of the full-time president of the Allentown Education Association.
In response to a lawsuit filed by the Fairness Center, PSERS determined the tenures of the current and previous AEA presidents were “non-retirement-covered compensation and years of service credit were removed for the same number of years that each served as union president…”
With this announcement, reported by the Allentown Morning Call and the Easton Express-Times, PSERS declared more than $1 million in salary earned by these ghost teachers ineligible for pension credit.
But pensions aren’t the end of it. Allentown taxpayers have also funded the salaries and other benefits of the city’s ghost teachers—even while the cash-strapped district laid off hundreds.
Pennsylvanians expect their education tax dollars will actually fund education. The fact remains that taxpayers should not be on the hook for union work, and teachers should be paid to teach.
Members of the General Assembly agree. Last month legislation that would strictly limit ghost teaching (HB 2125) advanced in the House.
PSERS’ decision is an important first step toward protecting taxpayers from funding employees of a private organization and making sure teachers are actually in the classroom.
Are ghost teachers about to be put to rest?
Ghost teachers in Pennsylvania would be strictly limited under legislation approved by the state House Education Committee today. HB 2125 restricts teachers unions’ ability to pluck teachers from the classroom to work full-time for the union while remaining on the public payroll.
In Allentown, taxpayers have paid more than $1.3 million to fund the salary and benefits of the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president—using money meant for educating students. That practice is being challenged in a lawsuit by local taxpayer Steven Ramos and former school board member Scott Armstrong.
Another lawsuit is pending in Philadelphia, where last year, 16 ghost teachers earned $1.5 million while working for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
HB 2125 ends ghost teaching with two exceptions:
- Statewide teachers’ unions (like the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Education Association) could have three officials on leave for up to six years, and
- School district employees may be on leave for 15 total days each school year but no more than three consecutive days.
Most importantly the bill requires teachers unions to reimburse every cent associated with school employee leave. CF's James Paul explains:
Year-in and year-out, Pennsylvanians are asked to contribute more and more of their hard-earned dollars to public education. The least state government can do is ensure this funding is used in the classroom and not tapped to staff private organizations. HB 2125 strictly limits ghost teaching and is a victory for Pennsylvanians.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently released a video featuring Secretary Pedro Rivera congratulating students for completing a school year. He praises children for “show[ing] up each and every morning ready to learn,” and encourages them to “above all, have fun with learning.”
Most interesting, however, is Rivera’s remark 50 seconds into the clip. Speaking directly to public school teachers, Rivera says, “Studies have shown that effective teachers have the greatest impact on the success of students…know that the governor and the Department of Education appreciate your efforts.”
While it is true effective teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement, this is a galling statement from an administration that recently vetoed HB 805, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. This legislation would have retained teachers based on performance, rather than simple seniority, in the unfortunate event of school district furloughs. The bill passed both chambers of the state Legislature, only to be promptly rejected by Gov. Wolf, who sacrificed high-performing teachers in return for union approval.
It’s nice the Wolf administration took time to acknowledge Pennsylvania’s excellent teachers. But it would have been more meaningful to protect their jobs and ensure a high-performing teacher in every classroom.
Teacher Linda Misja is a religious objector to unionism, and as such, can donate the equivalent of her fair share fee--otherwise owed to the union--to charity. But four years ago, the Pennsylvania State Education Association rejected Linda's charity of choice and instead has been holding her money in a union-controlled escrow account.
Today, the House State Government Committee voted in favor of HB 267 to protect religious objectors, like Linda, by eliminating a legal loophole that lets union leaders roadblock employees’ charitable contributions.
Under current law, public employees who object to union membership on religious grounds must donate the equivalent of their “fair share” fee, otherwise owed the union, to a non-religious charity they and the union agree upon. The PSEA, however, has repeatedly rejected teachers’ charities of choice simply because they don’t support the union’s political ideology.
Yet, a list of charities pre-approved by the union spent $27 million on political activity, according to the Fairness Center, which has filed lawsuits against the PSEA on behalf of Linda and two other Pennsylvania teachers.
Unfortunately, the law gives no clear instructions in the event that a union refuses to accept the employee’s charity of choice. If a dispute ensues, the money may be placed in a union-controlled escrow account indefinitely.
HB 267, sponsored by Rep. John Lawrence, would protect the right of religious objectors to give their money to a recognized 501(c)3 of their choosing--even if it doesn't align with the ideology of the PSEA.
CF President and CEO Matt Brouillette explains the treatment of religious objectors is just one more instance of teacher unions putting their interest before the interests of teachers:
Government unions already enjoy the perk of using taxpayer funded payroll systems to collect their union dues, which they then use for political purposes. And unions already trap their members, letting them leave the union only during short windows of time. As if this weren’t enough, union leaders also want to control nonmembers’ paychecks.
Today’s vote is an important first step in protecting the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania’s public employees.
In a crucial victory for both students and teachers, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act passed the Senate this afternoon with a vote of 26 to 22.
HB 805, championed by Rep. Stephen Bloom, provides that public school teachers are retained based on effectiveness in the classroom—not merely seniority—in the unfortunate event of furloughs. Today’s passage ensures Pennsylvania’s best teachers remain in the classroom, helping every child reach their maximum potential.
Reform to rigid seniority mandates is long overdue in the commonwealth. A strict, seniority-based system punishes young, effective teachers who excel in the classroom but have not racked up sufficient service time. This is plainly unfair. Every teacher should be evaluated based on their talents as educators, not just their years of service.
That’s why HB 805 is so important. The legislation now moves to Gov. Tom Wolf, whose options are clear: Side with the teachers’ unions which oppose the bill, or side with public school students and excellent teachers—both of whom stand to gain tremendously from the governor’s signature.
Sounds like a no-brainer.
My latest op-ed at PennLive debunks several school funding myths that continue to haunt Pennsylvania:
While local school revenue is notably high (6th in the nation), state revenue per student also exceeds the national average—ranking 24th-highest in the country, according to NCES.
Why, then, does Gov. Wolf repeatedly claim Pennsylvania ranks 45th in state support of public schools? This rhetorical sleight-of-hand refers to education spending in percentages, not dollars.
Would you rather have 50 percent of a dime or 36 percent of a dollar? Right now, state taxpayers provide the latter, paying more than a third of a total figure that significantly exceeds the national average.
I also address the funding gap between high- and low-income districts in the commonwealth:
You've probably heard about Pennsylvania's largest-in-the-nation funding gap between wealthy and poor districts. Isn't that reason enough to boost funding? While the discrepancies in district spending are higher in Pennsylvania than in other states, there is more to the story.
The NCES recently organized each state's school districts into four quartiles of family income. In each quartile—even among high-poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. The discrepancy arises only because some affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their schools.
Read the whole piece here. Relatedly, Gov. Wolf continues to hold schools hostage for the sake of his political agenda. His administration recently sent a memo to districts with instructions for shutting down:
A how-to manual on closing a school district for lack of funds is not provided in Pennsylvania's Public School Code but the state Department of Education did its best to compile one in response to districts' inquiries.
The department this week shared a memo with districts that outlines 11 actions that school boards would have to consider before taking the drastic step of shuttering their schools until funding becomes available.
Of course, nowhere in Wolf’s memo does he explain the only reason so many districts lack funds is because he vetoed more than $3 billion in state support of public schools. The governor could release those dollars in a matter of days, if he so desired, but he would rather spread the pain than solve the problem.
Allentown School District is no stranger to financial troubles. The third largest public school system in the commonwealth has been in financial distress for years. In 2011, the district laid off 112 teachers, in 2013, 100 teachers, and in 2014, 60 teachers lost their jobs. So it's understandable that former school board member Scott Armstrong and taxpayer Steven Ramos were upset to learn that the district paid more than $1.3 million since 2000 in salary and benefits to the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president, a teacher who doesn’t teach.
“It’s absurd that Allentown taxpayers are being forced to pay a union employee’s salary along with health and pension benefits,” said Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos. “How many students could be educated with the more than $1 million the district has given to a private organization? This misuse of public money must end.”
The current AEA president is Deb Tretter. When Tretter left the classroom in 2009, her salary jumped from $63,245 to $73,373. In addition to the pay pump, Tretter receives a taxpayer-funded salary, insurance, benefits, pension credits and accrues seniority as if she were still employed as a teacher.
"Now, Armstrong, along with fellow Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos, is taking his fight to court and asking a judge to end the long-held practice of releasing the union president from classroom duties.
Armstrong and Ramos . . . filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Commonwealth Court with the help of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm with offices in King of Prussia and Harrisburg.
They are requesting that the union reimburse the district — with interest — for salary, benefits and pension credits, which they say exceed $1.3 million since the practice began more than 25 years ago."
The lawsuit isn’t questioning the need for a full-time union president, but it is questioning why taxpayers should pay for another organization's employee.
A poll posted at Lehighvalleylive shows overwhelming support for the lawsuit’s argument that taxpayers should not be paying a union employee. Here are the poll results as of this morning:
Allentown schools are struggling to meet basic needs like elementary music and art classes and updated textbooks. In this environment, it seems reprehensible that district leaders choose to spend tens of thousands each year on a ghost employee.
Watch a full report from WFMZ:
It's no secret that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) plucks teachers out of the classroom to work as full-time union operatives. These individuals are known as ghost teachers—and their salaries are paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers.
How much? Philadelphia ghost teachers made more than $1.7 million in 2014.
The union is authorized by the School District of Philadelphia to pull up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to conduct full-time union work. According to the PFT, these teachers typically serve as information officers. But reporting from Evan Grossman of Watchdog.org explains that some ghost teachers work in an explicitly political capacity:
Hillary Linardopoulos, who has not taught in a classroom since 2009, “coordinates much of our political activism and legislative involvement,” according to an op-ed penned by union members that endorses its current leadership team going into an upcoming internal election. Since leaving the classroom, her taxpayer-funded salary has almost doubled to $91,156.
The PFT says it reimburses the district for ghost teacher wages, but documentation supporting that claim was not immediately available from the union.
The article continues:
Candidates running for positions on the PFT’s collective bargaining team have all been on leave from the classroom for years, according to documents obtained by Watchdog. Eight ghost teachers running for office earned a total of $874,305 last year working full-time for the union. On average, those eight individuals have been on leave for an average of 16 years. They’ve also received annual raises, despite a three-year wage freeze while the district and union have failed to negotiate a new teachers’ contract.
Union President Jerry Jordan and Vice President Arlene Kempin have been on leave for more than 30 years and have worked exclusively for the union longer than they taught in the classroom.
Fortunately, the battle to end this abusive system is underway in the state Capitol. House Bill 1649, championed by Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, prohibits employees on public school payroll from leaving the classroom to work full-time for unions. Sen. Pat Stefano intends to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.
Rather than subsidizing union lobbying efforts, it’s time for students and taxpayers to get what they deserve: good teachers in the classroom.
Pennsylvania’s legislature granted extraordinary powers to Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) when they created the body in 2001. Tasked with shoring up the district’s finances, the SRC was authorized to suspend provisions of the state’s public school code and charter school law.
Over the years, the SRC used these powers to cap charter enrollment growth, which is otherwise forbidden by law. The SRC also used this authority to expedite school closings, bypass irrational seniority provisions, and alter employee labor contracts.
On Tuesday, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a significant ruling that will curtail the SRC from taking such drastic measures. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The court ruled that the SRC had no legal power to suspend portions of the state charter law and school code. The ruling strips the commission of extraordinary powers it believed it had - and used.
By declaring unconstitutional a portion of the takeover law that the SRC has relied on heavily, many of the major actions the commission has taken in recent years - up to and including bypassing seniority in teacher assignments - could be subject to reversal.
The Philadelphia Public School Notebook has more:
In essence, the court said that the General Assembly overstepped its bounds and was too open-ended in granting the SRC these powers in 2001.
“The Legislature gave the SRC what amounts to carte blanche powers to suspend virtually any combination of provisions of the School Code – a statute covering a broad range of topics,” the ruling said. It said that prior court decisions “have never deemed such an unconstrained grant of authority to be constitutionally valid.”
The ramifications of this decision could be most prevalent in the Philadelphia charter school community. The case was brought by West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School, which challenged the SRC for limiting its enrollment.
If this ruling paves the way for expanded school choice in Philadelphia, it will be welcome news for parents who have been searching for quality educational options. There certainly is no shortage of demand for more seats in high-quality charter schools. For example, just yesterday, MaST Charter School received over 8,000 applicants for 99 open seats.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers described the court’s decision as a “double-edged sword.” Union president Jerry Jordan is pleased to see the SRC’s powers diminished, but is dismayed at the prospect of increased charter school freedom among families desperate for choice:
On the other hand, the ruling also removes enrollment caps from charter schools. This means that the three new charter schools approved by the SRC will place even more of a strain on the District's already overstretched budget. Now more than ever, the PFT is reiterating its call for a moratorium on new charter schools because Philadelphia simply cannot afford any more conversions.
With tonight's vote, the SRC has taken another step toward bankrupting the school district. The irresponsibility of the SRC's actions provides more evidence that body needs to be abolished in favor of local control of our children's schools.
At the same time thousands of families are stranded on waitlists for better schools, the teachers’ union president calls for a moratorium on new charters. So much for putting the children first.
In 2015, several states took action to improve the functionality of their public charter school laws. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania’s 130,000 charter students—as well as the thousands of students on currently on charter waitlists—progress in the commonwealth remained elusive.
According to an analysis by The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Pennsylvania’s charters are losing ground to schools other states. The 2015 report compares Pennsylvania law to the National Alliance’s model legislation. Pennsylvania’s national ranking slipped from 25th to 27th. Lawmakers can do more to ensure healthy growth in the charter sector, especially given that charters were among those hardest hit by the governor’s refusal to sign a responsible state budget until late December.
Findings from the National Alliance suggest that Pennsylvania’s charter laws, despite meeting standards in some categories, need improvement in several critical areas. The most notable failings were related to enrollment caps, authorizer accountability, and fair funding. The commonwealth also has room to grow in terms of access to capital funding and facilities. On the other hand, Pennsylvania received high marks for its transparent application and review processes, as well as for exemptions from local school district collective bargaining units.
What better way to celebrate National School Choice Week (NSCW)—which kicks off today—than to take action strengthening Pennsylvania’s charter school law? NSCW is the country’s largest annual celebration of educational opportunity. A more robust charter sector will empower families to chose from a larger group of high-quality schooling options.
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