Pennsylvania School District, Union Sued Over Work ‘Release Time’

Published March 24, 2016

A former member of the Allentown, Pennsylvania school board is suing the city’s government school district and the Allentown Education Association (AEA), the local chapter of the National Education Association teachers union, over “release-time provisions,” an entitlement benefit often included in collective bargaining agreements that allows government teachers to be paid with taxpayer funds while working for the union but not educating children.

The Fairness Center, a public-interest law firm offering free legal services, filed a lawsuit in February against the Allentown School District and AEA, challenging the district’s contract agreement with AEA President Debbie Tretter.

Something for Nothing

Scott Armstrong, a former member of the government school district’s Board of School Directors, says the district is paying Tretter’s salary as a teacher even though she is not working as a teacher. The Fairness Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of Armstrong and two other Allentown residents.

“I publicly raised the question that this couldn’t be right,” Armstrong said. “I asked at a public meeting if anyone has explored if this was even legal or not. Several weeks later, the solicitor[, John Freund,] supplied an opinion that it wasn’t legal for any school district to provide payment to someone that wasn’t providing a direct benefit to the school district and that it wasn’t legal to be paying her salary.”

Sleeping Watchdogs

Armstrong says the school board was uninterested in addressing his concern.

“This wasn’t a fight they cared to engage in, not in any way, shape, or fashion,” Armstrong said. “Why are we, who are representing the taxpayers, condoning and making it official that they pay the salary of a person who is acting as an agent against their best interests? The union president is not working for the students or the district. She’s working for her collective bargaining group.”

Officials ‘Already Knew’

Karin Sweigart, an attorney with the Fairness Center, says the government school district’s administrators are aware they are breaking the law.

“Allentown already knew this was a problem for them legally,” Sweigart said. “Public dollars should not be going to the president of a private association. The baseline of it is teachers should be paid to teach, and this is union work.”

Sweigart says the plaintiffs are demanding repayment of the illegally funneled funds.

“We’re asking the Allentown School District and union to reimburse the school district and the State of Pennsylvania for the money they have used inappropriately, which since 2000 has been more than $1.3 million,” Sweigart said. “We don’t know how much more, because the information the school gave us was incomplete. They weren’t able to get us all the records in time.”

‘Just Not Fair’

Bob Dick, a policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, says ending union release time is in the best interests of students, teachers, and the school district itself.

“This is coming at a time when the Allentown School District is in financial straits and actually had to lay off 270-plus teachers since 2011,” Dick said. “It’s just not fair to those teachers and students and taxpayers that this one teacher is still being paid for time spent away.”

Kate Patrick ([email protected]) writes from Clarksville, Ohio.