Who pays 'ghost teachers'? Labor group to cover Pa. district costs when teachers work for union full time

At least one school district in Pennsylvania will receive some relief for its taxpayers after a teachers union agreed to cover all future costs associated with the controversial “ghost teacher” practice.

The Reading Education Association, the union at the center of the controversy, has agreed to a memorandum of understanding with Reading School District to reimburse the school district for all future costs. It did not, however, agree to repay nearly $600,000 in salary and benefits accrued by the union’s presidents since 2011.

Fox News reported on the original lawsuit, which was filed by Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit public employee watchdog group, in 2017. The Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm which primarily focuses on public employee unions, assisted in the litigation.

The Fairness Center focused on the cost of the salary and benefits accrued by the former REA presidents, which totaled $583,213 from 2011 to 2016. Going forward, the union will be made to pay the district for those costs until the current collective bargaining agreement expires.

“I think the major point here is that while things have gotten better for the kids in Reading, this is a statewide problem and this going to take a statewide solution.”

— David Osborne

“They’ve negotiated for certain privileges, and that’s what this is,” David Osborne, president and general counsel for the Fairness Center, said. “This is a privilege for one or more people to leave their full-time job and go work for the union full time.”

The problem with the decision in Reading is that the memorandum of understanding doesn’t set a legal precedent that would be binding for other districts.

“I think the major point here is that while things have gotten better for the kids in Reading, this is a statewide problem and this going to take a statewide solution,” Osborne said.

“I think it puts them on a level playing field.”

— Patrick Stefano

This controversial arrangement is allowed through collective bargaining under current Pennsylvania state law; it’s a practice that Republican State Sen. Patrick Stefano hopes to end through legislation. He currently has a bill on the Senate floor that would bar the practice of school districts shouldering the costs of teachers who take “full-time union leave.”

“I think it puts them on a level playing field,” Stefano said. “They can’t keep getting their workers at the taxpayers' costs. It’s a double cost for a school district. … Those are tax dollars out the door without any educational benefit.

"When resources are already strained, it just makes a bad situation worse.”

The bill would still allow for teachers to be granted paid time off to vote over union functions, attend conferences or lobby state lawmakers. The threshold for full-time union work would be defined as more than three consecutive days in a week or 30 days in a school year.

In an emailed statement, Rebecca Titus, president of the REA, said she’s pleased the lawsuit is being discontinued so “we may focus our efforts on educating the students of Reading.”

Reading, long-maligned as economically depressed, has had its share of education problems. A 2016 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment study found that the town ranked 494 out of 500 districts in math proficiency, and No. 493 in reading proficiency. These numbers follow students into high school, where only 65 percent graduated in 2016.

Those rates are stark when compared with the statewide graduation rate of 89 percent.