Teachers Union Rides First Class on Philadelphia Schools’ Gravy Train

Kyle Olson

6/14/2012 12:01:00 AM - Kyle Olson

PHILADELPHIA – Every pay period, the Philadelphia school district puts $155 per union member into a special fund that helps educators pay their personal legal bills, which includes everything from routine legal advice to estate planning.

That single perk, nestled deep within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ union contract, cost taxpayers $2.6 million during the 2010-11 school year. It also contributed to the district’s financial woes, which led to 2,200 teachers being laid off last year.

The “PFT Legal Services Fund” is just one example of Philadelphia public schools’ extravagant spending practices, which are the focus of EAGnews.org’s latest investigative report, “Sucking the Life Out of America’s Public Schools: The Expense of Teachers Union Contracts.”

Using figures from the 2010-11 school year, EAG’s report details how the local teachers union –the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers – has larded up the district’s budget with expenditures that benefit the adult employees, but have no demonstrative impact on student learning.

For example, Philadelphia taxpayers spent $165 million on health insurance for PFT members; union employees contributed less than 1 percent toward their insurance costs, according to documents obtained via open records laws.

But low-cost health insurance is just the beginning of the goodies given to PFT members. The Philadelphia school district also contributed $66 million to the union-controlled “Health and Welfare Fund,” which provides PFT members with dental, vision and prescription benefits.

Despite such generous health benefits, PFT members were absent a lot during the 2010-11 school year. Approximately 11,850 teachers took a combined 137,104 sick or personal days, which averages to 11.5 days per teacher in a 188-day work year.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has roughly 16,000 members (not all of them classify as teachers), and during the 2010-11 school year they took a combined 236,863 days off – including 36,830 days for “wage continuation,” 3,122 days for “jury duty,” 1,419 days for “unauthorized leave without pay,” and 9 days for “religious mourning.”

The “wage continuation” benefit protects employees against “wage loss in the case of an illness, non-work related injury or other short-term disability which extends beyond an individual’s available sick leave,” according to PFT’s teacher contract. This extra layer of cushion cost taxpayers $7.1 million during the previous school year.

Retiring PFT members were allowed to cash out their unused sick days and leave time, costing the district $15.3 million in “severance pay.”

All told, EAGnews.org found a total $135 million in questionable expenditures, money that could have prevented many of the 2,200 teacher layoffs.

The remaining PFT members are still enjoying a smooth ride on the public education gravy train, but it’s about to run out of track. If they refuse to make contract concessions, their train is going to derail, and the first class cabin may bear the brunt of the impact.