ALLENTOWN, Pa. – A former Allentown School Board member is suing the district, the local teacher’s union, and the state school employee retirement system over what’s known as “union release time.”
Like many large school districts, the Allentown School District covers the full salary, benefits and retirement costs for Allentown Education Association union president Debbie Tretter, who works full time for the teacher’s union, The Morning Call reports.
Tretter’s salary alone is $81,608 a year, and the district has covered that expense as well as benefits for the union president for more than 25 years, totaling more than $1.3 million with interest.
Former Allentown School Board member Scott Armstrong, who lost re-election in November, thinks the tax dollars could be better spent, especially considering the district’s recent financial troubles, and called on his fellow board members to end the practice.
“Facing a $10.4 million budget deficit, the Allentown School District has been forced to make deep cuts,” Watchdog.org reports. “Over the last four years, the district laid off more than 466 employees, including 272 teachers since 2011. Layoffs are expected to continue for the next two to three years …”
Board members declined to pursue the union release time issue, and now Armstrong, Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos, and teacher James Williams are suing the district, the AEA and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System in an effort to force the change and recover tax dollars wasted on a teacher who doesn’t teach.
“We are trying to end a practice that is currently costing the district $81,608 plus benefits annually,” Armstrong told The Morning Call. “That will be a significant savings to the taxpayers and the district if the court provides a remedy. … This legal action would not be necessary if the board would move to end the practice.”
The lawsuit highlights the district’s stressed finances as the most logical reason to do so.
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“The district has been in financial distress for many years,” according to the lawsuit. “Yet despite its financial woes, since 1990 the district has somehow had enough money to pay the salary and benefits of an individual who doesn’t work for the district. …
“It’s time for the AEA president to either get back in the classroom or off the public dole.”
Anderson filed the lawsuit with the help of the Fairness Center, a legal nonprofit, which is also challenging the same issue in the Philadelphia School District.
The suit points out that the Public School Employees’ Retirement Code requires the union to reimburse school districts for the salary and benefits of union officers on release time, but the AEA ignores the rules.
The reimbursement is circumvented in the union collective bargaining agreement, but the legality of that arrangement hasn’t previously faced a court challenge in Pennsylvania, Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, told the news site.
Fairness Center assistant general counsel Karin Sweigart told Watchdog “the union’s practice is both morally questionable and illegal.
“As soon as a teacher begins working full-time for a private organization like a union, he or she stops being a public employee. Therefore, that employee is no longer entitled to earn a public salary or additional benefits,” she said. “The union is abusing taxpayers and the public education system to further its own goals.”
AEA president Tretter and district superintendent C. Russell Mayo refused to discuss the case.