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Allentown schools cry poverty, pay ‘ghost teachers’

By   /   March 16, 2016  / Pennsylvania Watchdog

The Allentown Board of School Directors approved a new teachers contract last week that preserves the practice of allowing teachers to collect government paychecks while doing work for the local teachers union.

Since 1990, the cash-strapped school district has spent more than $1 million in taxpayers’ money on salaries and benefits for the president of the Allentown Education Association. The AEA is not obligated to repay any of the money.

PARANORMAL PAYROLL: The Allentown Board of School Directors approved a controversial ghost teachers contract.

The practice, known as “release time,” is permitted under Article 28 of the Allentown teachers’ contract. It allows for AEA President Debbie Tretter to receive an $81,000 taxpayer-funded salary and benefits as if she were still teaching in the classroom. The agreement is being challenged in a lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court.

In February, the Fairness Center, a non-profit legal service that defends workers against unions, filed a complaint challenging the district’s policy to allow Tretter and other union bosses, also called “ghost teachers,” to collect a public salary.

Of eight Allentown school board directors, only one voted against the teachers’ contract last week. Michael Welsh said he wasn’t comfortable with the release-time provision.

“Many of my constituents were not aware this practice existed in our district and expressed their concerns to me,” Welsh told Watchdog. “It was my belief that the best settlement would have included a sharing of cost between the district and the union for this position, with the return of the union president to at least half-time classroom instruction. As this was not part of the final contract, I could not support it.”

School Board President David Zimmerman did not respond to a request for comment.

Tretter said “the members of AEA are happy with the new contract” but declined to speak about the lawsuit. The new teachers contract also included salary bumps and provisions to increase security for teachers in the classroom.

Karin Sweigart, a Fairness Center attorney, said the Allentown board’s contract vote was “outrageous.”

“The district is clearly struggling financially, yet the school board doubled down on a policy that’s robbed the district of more than $1.3 million since 2000,” she said. “Allentown students and taxpayers deserve better.”

The Fairness Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of Allentown taxpayers Steven Ramos and Scott Armstrong against the AEA, the Allentown School District and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System.

“At the same time the school district wants to borrow up to $64 million dollars just to stay open, it’s outrageous the board would vote to use taxpayer dollars to continue funding an employee of a private organization,” Sweigart said.

The AEA has until the end of March to respond to the lawsuit. The union is not obligated to pay back any release time costs. The district has been allowing partial release time since it was first collectively bargained in 1985.

Related: Senate bill aims to bust ‘ghost teachers.’

A year ago, a similar suit was filed in Philadelphia, where collective bargaining allows up to 63 teachers to leave the classroom to work full-time for the local teachers union. A Watchdog investigation found some of those teachers are paid to do political work for the union.

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