Conservative group sues Philly teachers union over ‘egregious’ contract provision

Listen
 Kristina Rasmussen, vice president of Americans for Fair Treatment, and Nathan Bohlander and David Osborne, legal counsel for the Fairness Center, are suing the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers over a contract provision. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Kristina Rasmussen, vice president of Americans for Fair Treatment, and Nathan Bohlander and David Osborne, legal counsel for the Fairness Center, are suing the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers over a contract provision. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Fairness Center, a conservative nonprofit with offices in King of Prussia and Harrisburg, has filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia teachers union.

The suit alleges that the PFT pays “ghost teachers” using Philadelphia School District and state funds to occupy roles in union leadership.

 

“We need teachers in classrooms,” said David Osborne, chief counsel for the Fairness Center. The Fairness Center represents Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit with staff in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois, in the case.

Those classrooms are staffed with full-time replacements for the union workers, according to union President Jerry Jordan.

“It’s a frivolous lawsuit,” said Jordan, who said Wednesday he had not yet read the Fairness Center’s petition.

Teachers contract provision is an ‘easy target’

The center’s suit targets a provision in the contract between the School District of Philadelphia and the PFT which grants “leaves of absence” for teachers who are elected or appointed to positions within the union.

The problem, said Osborne, is while on leaves of absence, those teachers continue to draw salary, pension and benefits from the district.

“The contract does not require reimbursement,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean that taxpayers are on the hook to pay those union employees, Jordan said. “PFT is billed monthly for all salaries and benefits that we enjoy as district employees,” he said. Through this agreement, PFT repays the district for “100 percent” of staffing costs.

According to Linda Kaboolian, instructor at Harvard University with three decades of experience studying and working with public service unions, there’s a “very long history” of having management pay for union workers.

“The typical explanation is that the manager has an interest in congenial labor relations,” said Kaboolian. But she said the “extraordinary cynicism” around the relationship between the district and the PFT makes the provision an “easy target.”

Contract provisions for leaves of absence not unusual

Leave of absence provisions are common for public-service union contracts. But some — like the contract for the Philadelphia police union — specify that full-time union workers cannot draw a department salary.

Historically, some experts say keeping a union leader on the district’s payroll can be a way to encourage labor and management to work together.

A cap of 63 teaching staff can take leaves of absence to work for the union, according to the contract. But Jordan said just 18 are currently on leave.

The Fairness Center claims the PFT does not reimburse the state for its contribution to those former teachers – totaling about a million dollars in funds since 1999.

Jordan disputed that number, saying all costs associated with pensions are reimbursed to the district, which manages the state pension plan.

In the past year, the Fairness Center has waded into two lawsuits with the Pennsylvania State Education Assocation, the largest teachers union in the state.

Matthew J. Brouillette, CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank and lobbying group in Harrisburg, is on the board of the Fairness Center. That foundation has previously received funding from the Donors Capital Fund, a Koch brothers affiliate, and the Charles G. Koch Foundation.

The Fairness Center would not share how many members it has in total or in Philadelphia. It has ties to groups with offices in Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, as well as the Goldwater Institute and State Policy Network, conservative advocacy groups.

“We’re a national organization,” said Osborne. “We won’t stay in Pennsylvania forever.”

Focus on Philadelphia

But for now, Osborne said, the group’s focus is on the Philadelphia teachers union and its contentious relationship with the school district.

The School Reform Commission recently appealed to the state Supreme Court a ruling that it could not cancel the teachers union contract after 21 months at the bargaining table.

“The pressure’s on both the school district and the union,” said Osborne. “This is a great opportunity to make our point.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified where the Fairness Center’s offices are located.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.