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Pennsylvania GOP targets teachers paid to do union work

| Saturday, April 22, 2017, 4:14 p.m.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Central Elementary teacher Bridget Scherer watches first graders Anna Chapman and Ben Lomb build a nest to hold the weight of marshmallow peeps during a STEAM challenge on April 6, 2017.

Pennsylvania Republicans are reigniting a push to outlaw so-called “ghost teachers” — educators who take extended absences to work full time for their unions while accruing salaries, seniority and pension credits on the taxpayers' dime.

The state Senate is set to take up a bill that would prohibit school districts from allowing teachers to take time away from the classroom — in some cases, for a year or more — to work for local or statewide teachers unions and perform tasks such as handling personnel disputes, representing colleagues in hearings and coordinating professional development.

The biggest sticking point is whether unions fully reimburse retirement contributions — particularly as districts lament mounting pension costs and the state grapples with a $50 billion unfunded pension liability.

Under Pennsylvania's retirement code, teachers may receive paid leave only if the union reimburses the district for the full cost, including salary, health benefits and retirement contributions.

Proponents identify the biggest problem areas to be large, urban districts such as Pittsburgh Public Schools, which authorizes full-time release for as many as seven teachers each year, and the School District of Philadelphia — where 18 teachers on union leave reportedly cost the district more than $1.7 million a year .

Statewide, release time is authorized in as many as 111 — or about 22 percent — of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, according to a report by the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based think tank.

In extreme cases, teachers have been on union leave for more than a decade.

Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Connellsville, referred to the practice as “ghost teaching.” The Fayette County lawmaker introduced Senate Bill 494 to end the practice.

“These ghost teachers receive taxpayer-funded salaries, health benefits and pensions, yet they may never return to the classroom or engage in actual teaching,” Stefano said. “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.”

Another “ghost-teaching” bill cleared the House Education Committee last summer but never made it to a vote on the House floor. That bill was introduced by state Reps. Rick Saccone of Allegheny County, Jim Christiana of Beaver County and Kristin Hill of York County, all Republicans.

‘Negotiated' deal

Union officials maintain that allowing teachers to take union leave saves districts money and time in the long run. And extended release time for union duties “doesn't exist very often, it's not widespread and it's negotiated,” said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

“Full-time release doesn't exist anywhere in Pennsylvania where a local school board did not sign off on it,” Keever said.

Specifically, SB 494 would ban Pennsylvania public school districts from entering into collective bargaining agreements permitting union leave for teachers that lasts more than three consecutive days or more than 30 days in a school year.

The bill cleared the Senate Education Committee this month, 5-4 on party lines, with Democrats opposing the measure.

“This is a good bill, a taxpayer-oriented bill,” committee Chairman John Eichelberger, R-Blair County, told the Tribune-Review.

“These are people that are going to work for a private organization, and they're doing it on taxpayer time with taxpayer funding,” he added. “They're supposed to reimburse the school for that activity, and from what we learned, they are not always reimbursed. And we're not sure if they're ever reimbursed for the full impact.”

Gov. Tom Wolf opposes the proposed legislation, spokesman J.J. Abbott said. He did not say whether the governor would veto the bill, should it pass.

Critics slam the proposal as an exaggerated attack on teachers unions spearheaded by conservative lobbyists and groups such as the Commonwealth Foundation, whose platform includes weakening public-sector unions.

The organization put out a report last month claiming its research had found that 198 former district employees may be working full time for private unions while remaining on public payroll. It cited at least 42 such positions in Allegheny County, six in Washington County and six in Westmoreland County.

The group advocates for scrutinizing all types of public-sector unions benefitting from release time, including local firefighters and police unions.

Fewer days away

The Hempfield Area School District — the largest in Westmoreland County with about 5,700 students — does not have ghost teachers, as no district educators take full-time leave for union work, said Joe Scheuermann, president of the Hempfield Area Education Association, a PSEA chapter.

The district's collective bargaining agreement allows teachers to take shorter breaks from their regular work for “association days” to attend daylong conferences, training sessions or meetings organized by the union throughout the year. This applies to teachers and other staff — such as guidance counselors, librarians or school nurses — who are elected by union members to serve as delegates to these meetings.

Absences for association days are pre-approved by the administration, and PSEA reimburses the district for related costs such as hiring a substitute teacher, said Robert Reger, Hempfield Area School District human resources director.

The Kiski Area School District also does not have ghost teachers, Assistant Superintendent Jason Lohr said.

Like many districts in the area, the teachers' contract allows for a set number of association days to be used throughout the school year. During the 2015-16 school year, Kiski teachers used 7.5 of the agreed upon 23 days, Lohr said. He added that the union will reimburse the district for costs related to a teacher's absence.

Belle Vernon Area School District does not have ghost teachers either, but the Belle Vernon Area Education Association will reimburse the district if union officers exceed the number of agreed upon association days, Superintendent John Wilkinson said.

The North Allegheny Federation of Teachers covers a teacher's salary and benefits for time spent on union leave, said Kaitlyn Zurcher, a spokeswoman for the North Allegheny School District.

‘Every penny' reimbursed

Pittsburgh Public Schools has four teachers on full-time leave through the union this school year, district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh confirmed. The union will reimburse the district for any costs associated with the leave, she said.

“All of it's paid back, every penny,” said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, which represents about 3,000 members from across Pittsburgh Public Schools. The district employs 1,990 teachers and serves more than 26,000 students.

Neither the district nor the union provided a figure when the Tribune-Review asked how much was reimbursed for teachers on union leave last school year.

Esposito-Visgitis called the term “ghost teachers” offensive and misleading. She said the work the union does — empowering teachers and giving them the tools and resources to do their jobs better — ultimately benefits students.

“A lot of these things we're working on now, you have to have the background knowledge of teaching,” Esposito-Visgitis said.

For example, the union is working with the city on projects to improve early childhood education and career and technical education. For those programs to be successful, Esposito-Visgitis said, it requires people with backgrounds in how schools work and firsthand knowledge about what students need to be successful in the classroom.

The practice is not unique to Pennsylvania, said Thomas Toch, director of the education think tank FutureEd, housed at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. Districts and teachers unions across the country come to similar agreements, and enabling teachers to take long-term union leave is common in larger districts where union officers are responsible for representing many teachers.

“Some of these jobs are very much full-time jobs,” Toch said. “It would actually be detrimental to students to have their teachers also be carrying a full-time job as a union leader, as an elected official.”

Union officials in Pennsylvania will continue to work with lawmakers in hopes of “finding a solution that would not undermine teacher associations and member involvement,” Keever said.

Natasha Lindstrom and Jamie Martines are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Lindstrom at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha. Reach Martines at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JamieMartines.

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