Scott Armstrong, a former member of the Allentown School Board, has filed suit in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court seeking to end the long-held practice of releasing the union president from classroom duties while continuing to pay that person’s salary. Plaintiffs, Mr. Armstrong and Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos, are represented by the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm.
The Plaintiffs are requesting that the union reimburse the School 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 suit characterizes teachers union President Debbie Tretter, who has led the union since 2009, as a “ghost teacher” with her annual salary being approximately $81,608.
A similar case involving the Philadelphia School District teachers union and the Fairness Center has not yet been resolved.
Provided that certain conditions are met, the Pennsylvania Public School Code requires that a school district fully compensate an employee with salary and benefits and that the union reimburse the school district when leave is given to someone to work full time as a union officer. However, in accordance with the Allentown School District’s Collective Bargaining agreement with its teacher’s union, the union currently does not reimburse the District. Since 1990, the Allentown union president has been released from teaching under the teacher’s contracts without the union providing reimbursement to the School District.
The Allentown School District and its teachers union currently are in contract negotiations. Last month, a fact-finding report done by a third party said the union president should still be released from classroom duties because of the size of the district. The School District has 1,135 teachers and more than 16,000 students. The fact-finder’s report said Tretter needs to work full time as a union president to serve as an “instrument for resolution of disputes before they bloom as grievances, unfair labor practice charges, and complaints before various state and local education and fair employment agencies.”
Karin Sweigart, an attorney with the Fairness Center, is arguing that the practice of releasing a union president from teaching duties and remaining on district payroll violates the Pennsylvania Education Code. In support of their case, Ms. Sweigart has cited the Arizona court case Cheatham v. Diciccio, in which two taxpayers challenged the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association for keeping the union president on payroll while that person was released from duties. In 2014, a judge ruled release time was unconstitutional.
The outcome of this case may have a big impact on how school district union officials are compensated for their union duties. We will keep you informed as to the outcome of this case. Please contact us if you have any questions or visit the MBM website for more information.