District Revokes Pension Benefits For Teachers Who Only Did Union Work

Connor D. Wolf 

A Pennsylvania teacher has had her pension benefits revoked following years of doing nothing but union work instead of her job, a lawyer involved said.

Allentown Education Association President Debra Tretter has done nothing but union work since getting elected in 2009. In that time, she continued to accumulate pension benefits reserved specifically for teachers because of a policy known as release time. The Public School Employees’ Retirement System revoked her benefits June 20 in response to an ongoing lawsuit.

“Release time has popped up in a lot of different ways in different districts,” Fairness Center Attorney Karin Sweigart told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Just a whole gamut of ways this policy has evolved across the state. And we have become aware of a lot of these and we hope this case will be the beginning of the unraveling of this practice across the state.”

The Fairness Center launched the lawsuit Feb. 24 on behalf of three local taxpayers. Release time allows public-sector employees to do union worker instead of their job while still getting taxpayer-funded wages and benefits. The Fairness Center alleges the policy is illegal because the state has what is known as a gift clause which prohibited it from funding private organizations.

“The pension system is so underfunded that taxpayers are on the hook for these people’s pensions,” Sweigart noted. “The underfunded liability is growing more and more each year and because of that the Pennsylvania constitutions says that taxpayers are the ones who have to pay these pension bills when the system turn insolvent.”

The Fairness Center calculates the state is down $63.2 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The union has had a few presidents over the years who have utilized release time. The policy has cost the school district alone more than $1.3 million since 2000. Tretter made $126,722 after benefits just last year.

“They already revoked the pension credits for the current and immediate past presidents,” Sweigart continued. “The teachers are currently trying to get the names of the individuals back to 1992 so they can determine if pension credits need to be revoked or people need to payback into the system because they were given pension money they should not have.”

The union has argued that release time does not negate someone from being a public employee. The school district did allow the policy when it agreed to include it in the collective bargaining agreement it has with the union. The union has already appealed the lawsuit and has the opportunity to counter the decision to revoke pension benefits.

“What happens is it goes to what’s called an executive review committee,” Sweigart said. “If the executive review committee continues to deny they can appeal it the teachers board. If the teachers board denies it they can appeal it to the commonwealth court. So they do have an avenue to try to get this money back.”

The Fairness Center has focused its lawsuit on Allentown, but it hopes it will be the start of a much broader battle. Many states have their own version of the gift clause that may make the practice illegal.

“Forty-seven states right now have what’s called a gift clause provision and that the provisions that currently being violated by the Allentown Education Association which says that the state cannot fund a private association,” Sweigart stated. “This is something that definitely isn’t exclusive to Pennsylvania.”

The practice exists on the federal level where it is known as official time. Trey Kovacs, a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, found it cost the federal government at least $1 billion between 1998 and 2013. The exact amount may be much higher due to inaccurate record keeping and a lack of transparency.

Official time may have also played a major role in the recent scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A 2014 report from the Capital Research Center found that many veterans may have died as a result of health care officials doing union work instead of their jobs.

The union did not respond to a request for comment by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

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