It’s time for Pa. to out­law ‘ghost teach­ers’

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - James Paul is a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst with the Har­ris­burg­based Com­mon­wealth Foun­da­tion, Penn­syl­va­nia’s freemar­ket think tank.

Across the com­mon­wealth, cer­tain teach­ers have been ab­sent for years — with­out con­se­quences.

If Penn­syl­va­nia stu­dents miss three days of school with­out an ex­cuse, the law says they must be re­ported. But across the com­mon­wealth, cer­tain teach­ers have been ab­sent for years — with­out con­se­quences.

Dozens of teach­ers and school district em­ploy­ees greet each school year not by walk­ing into a class­room but by walk­ing into their full-time jobs with the lo­cal teach­ers’ union. Here’s the kicker: Th­ese “ghost teach­ers” stay on district pay­roll, re­ceive health ben­e­fits, amass pen­sion cred­its, and ac­crue se­nior­ity, just as if they were ac­tu­ally teach­ing. It’s a scan­dalous mis­use of pub­lic re­sources that’s been hap­pen­ing un­der tax­pay­ers’ noses for decades.

In the midst of well-pub­li­cized staffing short­ages, for ex­am­ple, Philadel­phia lets up to 63 district em­ploy­ees work full-time for the union. Philadel­phia Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Pres­i­dent Jerry Jor­dan is him­self a ghost teacher who’s worked for the union for over 30 years.

Amaz­ingly, the union isn’t con­trac­tu­ally ob­li­gated to pay the district for ghost teach­ers’ salaries, ben­e­fits, or the cost of hir­ing a sub­sti­tute to re­place them. Though the union is vol­un­tar­ily re­im­burs­ing the district for some costs, state tax­pay­ers are out at least $1 mil­lion in pen­sion pay­ments since 1999.

Pitts­burgh al­lows up to 14 district em­ploy­ees to work full-time for the union. Though re­im­burse­ment is re­quired, th­ese teach­ers still ac­crue se­nior­ity — and the perks that go with it — just as if they were in the class­room.

In Delaware County, two school district col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments au­tho­rize ghost teach­ers: Ch­ester Up­land and South­east Delco. The same is true in three Ch­ester County dis­tricts and 10 more in Montgomery County. Across Penn­syl­va­nia, teacher con­tracts in 109 school dis­tricts al­low unions to siphon teach­ers away from the class­room full-time.

In re­sponses to Right-to-Know re­quests, many of th­ese school dis­tricts could not say whether re­lease time was be­ing used, how much was be­ing used, and if the district was re­ceiv­ing any re­im­burse­ment for as­so­ci­ated costs. This should raise a huge red flag to any­one who val­ues trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity in our pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

For now, ghost teach­ing is per­fectly le­gal in Penn­syl­va­nia, but that may soon change. Al­ready, the tide is turn­ing.

In Al­len­town, where Al­len­town Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Deb Tret­ter has been a ghost teacher since 2009, two res­i­dents sued to end the prac­tice. Since 2000, state and lo­cal tax­pay­ers have forked over more than $1.3 mil­lion to Al­len­town’s ghost teach­ers, with­out a penny re­im­bursed by the union.

Mean­while, since 2011, the cash-strapped school district has laid off 272 teach­ers, while some­how find­ing enough money to pay the salary and ben­e­fits for the pres­i­dent of a union — a pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tion. For­tu­nately, in a huge vic­tory for tax­pay­ers, Penn­syl­va­nia’s teacher pen­sion sys­tem re­cently agreed that Tret­ter and her im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor aren’t en­ti­tled to pen­sion credit for their ghost teach­ing years. More than $75,000 has been re­turned to the school district as a re­sult.

Now, leg­is­la­tion pend­ing in Har­ris­burg sig­nals that ghost teach­ers’ days may be num­bered.

HB 2125, spear­headed by Reps. Rick Sac­cone, Jim Chris­tiana, and Kristin Phillips-Hill, would end ghost teach­ing in Penn­syl­va­nia with two ex­cep­tions: Statewide teach­ers unions may re­tain three of­fi­cials on leave for up to six years, and school district em­ploy­ees can take leave for 15 to­tal days each school year, but no more than three con­sec­u­tively.

Unions have ev­ery right to hire em­ploy­ees to staff their of­fices. But they should not have the right to cap­ture school district em­ploy­ees to do union work on tax­payer time.

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