Court fight over “ghost employees”

PFT members protest outside of School District headquarters on Oct. 16, 2014.
Charles Mostoller

A conservative group is suing the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School District of Philadelphia, seeking to end the practice of letting teachers who work for the union remain district employees, in the latest salvo of a war pitting free-market activists against unionized teachers.

Americans for Fair Treatment say the union employees, who work full time for their trade organization and no longer teach, should not be allowed to accrue seniority, pension and health benefits.

Union and schools spokesmen told Metro the union reimburses the school district for the salaries and benefits of the teachers on loan to the labor group.

“Students are being deprived of teachers in the classroom,” said David Osborne, general counsel for The Fairness Center, a non-profit group representing Americans for Fair Treatment.

District officials don’t see what the big deal is. They say the situation is revenue neutral.

School District Spokesman Fernando Gallard says that the practice of granting union leave helps the district maintain “a good working relationship with staff.”

“If there is no cost, what’s the objection?”

That doesn’t mean the practice costs taxpayers nothing. The union does not reimburse the state for its pension contributions on behalf of the union-office teachers.

Americans for Fair Treatment was formed this year. Representatives declined to present membership statistics. All three publicly identified members of its Board of Trustees serve as officers of libertarian-oriented organizations in Illinois, Pennsylvania or Michigan.

The Fairness Center is chaired by Matthew Brouillette, who is President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, which launched the widely-panned PFTFails.com. That campaign came under fire last year when it hired paid protesters to counter a demonstration by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Granting public sector employees leave to work for the union is relatively common, and district officials confirmed that other unionized employees who are not represented by the PFT also take advantage of it.

Osborne, however, had little explanation as to why the group was focused on the PFT alone.

“Right now, this is the case we are focused on,” Osborne said. “It’s an important case in an important place.”

It’s unclear how many district employees are on leave. The union’s contract allows for 63 employees, but Americans for Fair Treatment will only say that the union employs “more than 20.”

George Coates, a member of Americans for Fair Treatment and a Philadelphia resident who says he is a consultant to the wine and spirits industry said the leave policy “makes no sense at all.”

“It does nothing to further the education of our children,” Coates said.

A spokeswoman for Americans for Fair Treatment said Coates’ children do not attend public schools.

AFT of AFT?

What’s the difference between AFT.org and TheAFT.org? While both websites feature smiling adults standing in front of children, their politics, and goals, could not be more different.

One is the website for the American Federation of Teachers, the national union representing teachers that has become a potent force in Democratic politics.

The other is a site for Americans for Fair Treatment, a newly formed conservative group that says it “equips and empowers Americans to receive fair treatment from government unions,” and as it’s first major action sued the School District of Philadelphia on Wednesday.

The similarity between the two web addresses is “not a total coincidence,” said David Osborne, the general counsel for The Fairness Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Americans for Fair Treatment.

A spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers said Wednesday she was not familiar with the new group, nor was the organization aware that their web addresses were so similar.

It’s unclear if AFT — the conservative group, not the union — or the Fairness Center have any targets beyond teachers unions.

The Fairness Center has filed two other lawsuits, both against another union representing teachers, The Pennsylvania State Education Association. One lawsuit was filed on behalf of a teacher who wanted to prevent a school district from withholding union dues, citing religious beliefs. The other suit deals with union spending for political advocacy.

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