A Pennsylvania nonprofit organization is suing a Philadelphia teachers union to end the practice of paying teachers to do union work on the taxpayer’s dime.
The Fairness Center filed suit against the state teachers union on Wednesday morning to challenge so-called union release time, in which union representatives are pulled out of the classroom to attend to union business.
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Despite the fact that these representatives are no longer serving as teachers, they collect paychecks from school districts rather than the labor union. Fairness Center general counsel David Osborne said the practice drains much-needed resources from public schools.
"Philadelphia’s public schools spend more than $14,000 per student, yet we hear stories of schools that can’t afford toilet paper. So, where does all that money go?" Osborne said. "Clearly the teachers contract lacks sound fiscal controls when it doesn’t even require the [Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers] to reimburse for the cost of teachers doing union work on school time."
The suit says that the district is wasting money to pay teachers not to teach even as the city fails to fill open teacher positions. The district reported 217 teaching vacancies in October 2014, according to the suit. At the same time more than 20 district teachers were being paid to do union work. The teachers union contract allows up to 63 teachers to hold such positions.
"District employees working for PFT or these affiliated organizations still receive incidences of District employment, such as salary, benefits, and insurance coverage from the District, as well as accrual of pension credit and seniority," the suit says. "PFT is not contractually obligated to reimburse the District for the cost of salary, benefits, insurance coverage, seniority, or pension."
The suit contends that "district employees performing union work on school time cease to be engaged in public ‘employment,’" and should no longer remain on the public payroll unless they perform teaching duties.
The average Philadelphia teacher earns a salary of about $71,000, not including pension and insurance benefits, meaning that the district could spend more than $4 million on teachers who do not teach if all 63 union positions are filled. That is a conservative estimate, as the union often draws from a senior pool of teachers, who earn more than the average educator.
Pulling these teachers out of the classroom leads to over-crowded classrooms and wasted potential, according to Osborne.
"Other teachers are forced to pick up the slack while Jerry Jordan hand-picks teachers to work for the union, not the schools," he said.
There is limited accountability for the union representatives once they accept positions outside of the classroom, according to Osborne.
"It was disturbing to discover that the School District of Philadelphia has no oversight of these teachers once they are selected by the union," Osborne said. "The district could provide zero records on how the PFT is employing these ghost teachers. The collective bargaining agreement even allows Jerry Jordan to dictate to the district the salaries of the teachers he selects."
Philadelphia is not alone in providing unions with full-time representatives on the taxpayer dime. A 2014 analysis by the Washington Examiner found that the federal government paid more than $155 million to cover the costs of full-time union workers between 1978 and 2011.
"The Examiner identified more than 700 federal employees who spent at least half of their time working for unions rather than performing their government jobs in 2012," the report found.
The Philadelphia school system allows for more union representatives per capita than the federal government. The union’s contract allowed for 63 representatives to serve 15,000 union members. The 700 federal union representatives attend to about 1 million federal union members.
PFT president Jerry Jordan has been an outspoken critic of the school district, repeatedly slamming the city for not budgeting enough money for education. The school district is now working to cancel the union contract to institute budget reforms to close an $80 million budget deficit. The Fairness Institute contends that Philadelphia would have fewer budgetary issues if it were not redistributing taxpayer dollars from schools to subsidize union work.
"It is the height of hypocrisy for PFT president Jerry Jordan, who has been skipping school to do union work for nearly 30 years along with dozens of other ghost teachers, to lament a lack education resources in Philadelphia," Osborne said. "There are dozens of teaching vacancies in the city, but Jordan is keeping teachers out of the classroom for his own self-interest, putting additional strain on Philadelphia’s struggling public education system as a result. "
The union did not respond to request for comment.