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Lehigh Valley

No pension for 'ghost teacher,' says state agency

PSERS weighs in on lawsuit against ASD union president

HARRISBURG, Pa. - The Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System --PSERS -- agrees taxpayers should not be on the hook for the pension of a teacher who doesn't teach.

For years, the Allentown School District has paid the salary and benefits of a "ghost teacher" who is hired by the district to teach but instead works full-time for the local teachers' union, according to a lawsuit filed in February by the Fairness Center.

Target of the suit is Debra Tretter, president of the Allentown Education Association.

According to the Fairness Center, Tretter left the classroom in 2009 to become president of the teachers union, but the school district continues to pay her salary, provides her with insurance and benefits and allows her to accrue seniority.

Tretter's current salary is $81,608, according to the Fairness Center. With other benefits, that totals $126,723 in the 2015-16 school year.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of on behalf of Allentown taxpayers Steven Ramos and Scott Armstrong, who was a member of the school board.

Responding to The Fariness Center's  lawsuit, PSERS issued a statement Wednesday agreeing that the Allentown Education Association president is not entitled to receive retirement credit while on full release time "under the facts presented in the pleadings."

The state agency, which administers the pension plan for Pennsylvania's public school employees. added that retirement credits incorrectly awarded "must be removed."

"We are pleased PSERS has agreed that the taxpayers of Allentown and Pennsylvania should not be forced to fund the retirement of a private employee," commented Karin Sweigart, assistant general counsel of the Fairness Center, in a news release.

"For years, the current AEA president has received taxpayer-funded salary, benefits, and retirement credit as if she were a teacher. PSERS' decision is the first step toward restoring to the people of Allentown and Pennsylvania the money illegally diverted to a private endeavor."

Since 2000, Allentown taxpayers have paid more than $1.3 million for the salary and benefits of the full-time union president, according to the Fairness Center. It maintains an employee of a private organization should not receive a publicly funded salary and pension.

The Fairness Center lawsuit seeks to end the contract provision allowing the AEA president to work full-time for the union while receiving a publicly-funded salary and benefits.

The suit also asks the court to require the AEA to reimburse the district and state for salary, benefit, and pension costs since 2000.

"Pennsylvania's public retirement system already faces a $50 billion-plus unfunded liability," said Sweigart. "It's outrageous that anyone would think it appropriate to put the system at even greater risk by siphoning public funds for private interest. We are encouraged that PSERS is taking steps to stop this illegal practice, and we look forward to continuing to fight in court to fully end the union's abuse of taxpayer trust."

Responding to the Fairness Center news release about PSERS, Atty. John Freund, solicitor for the Allentown School District, stated:

"Ghost teacher does not describe the Allentown case. The Allentown situation is nothing like what has been happening in Philadelphia where there can be up to 63 teachers on leave for union work.

"Here in Allentown, there is one position that has been granted leave for union work. The Allentown leave for the AEA president is the result of a collective bargaining process in which the district presumably received reciprocal benefit.

"Whether the absence violates the code is between the PSERS and PSEA."

Armstrong served as a member of the Allentown School Board from 2011-2015. He is self-employed and lives in Allentown.  Ramos is an Allentown taxpayer and graduate of Allentown School District's William Allen High School. Both Armstrong's and Ramos' children previously attended district schools.

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