While teachers unions and school districts are often at odds, a recent lawsuit has put the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on the same side.
The lawsuit, filed the morning of Feb. 25, claims that Philadelphia’s school system has been haunted by “ghost teachers” due to a contract stipulation that lets teachers work for the union while remaining on the district's payroll.
The Fairness Center — a nonprofit, public interest legal firm — sued the PFT and School District in Common Pleas Court Feb. 25over the practice of stocking union positions with teachers funded by taxpayer dollars.
These so-called “ghost teachers” leave vacancies in the classroom, according to the lawsuit.
The Fairness Center sued on behalf of its client, Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit membership organization that “empowers Americans to receive fair treatment from government unions,” according to its website.
A stipulation in the contract between the teachers’ union and the district has allowed the union to grant district employees “release time” for years. PFT President Jerry Jordanwas used as a prominent example of a union president whose salary is paid with taxpayer dollars.
“Under the contract, up to 63 district employees can be elected or handpicked by the PFT president to leave the district and fill full-time positions with the union,” said Nate Bohlander, assistant general counsel for the Fairness Center.
“The contract also requires the district to provide full salary, benefits, insurance and pensions to these employees performing union work on school time,” Bohlander added.
Though the contract allows for up to 63 employees, the Fairness Center was unable to specify the actual amount of teachers who were commandeered for union positions.
“We’ve asked that question in our public records search. I want to say it’s in the low twenties,” General Counsel for the Fairness Center David Osborne said, adding that the contract is currently being renegotiated.
The Fairness Center cited $1 million in benefits directed toward these teachers since 1999.
However, District spokesperson Fernando Gallardsaid, “We get reimbursed 100 percent of the costs,” by the PFT. These reimbursements covered the teachers’ salaries, health benefitsand fringe benefits, Gallard added.
The PFT could not be reached for comment before the time of publication.
For Osborne and Bohlander, the lawsuit does not hinge on whether or not the union actually reimbursed the School District. The legal issue at hand is the lack of a requirement in the contract that mandated these reimbursements in the first place.
The Fairness Center did admit in a press briefing that “there is no explicit prohibition on sending District employees to work full-time for PFT,” but Bohlander identified two areas for a legal case.
Under the Pennsylvania Employee Relations Act, public employers, like the School District, and nonpublic employers, like the teachers' union, cannot "bargain collectively for the terms of employees doing work for private entities."
“This runs afoul of the public policy of the Commonwealth," Bohlander said, addressing his second point.
Osborne identified a legal precedent for banning “release time” to work for unions: the Arizona Superior Court struck down a similar Phoenix statute in Jan. 2014.
The contract does not mandate the union to reimburse the district for transferred teachers. Osborne and Bohlander said this makes the fairly common practice of release time particularly “widespread and egregious” in Philadelphia.
Americans for Fair Treatment, a group founded in 2014, has filed litigation against other unions before, specifically the state teachers’ union,the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Kristina Rasmussen,board member of Americans for Fair Treatment, said that a “strong plurality” of the group’s members are Philadelphians, but would not specify how many members are in the burgeoning group.
One member, Philadelphia resident George Coates, decried the union’s release time practice.
“Union workers should be doing union work," he said, "and our teachers should be in the classroom."
Staff Reporter Jennifer Wright contributed reporting.
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