DENVER – Across the United States, taxpayer dollars are being used to subsidize the salaries and benefits of teachers and other municipal employees who work for their local labor unions.
This wasteful tradition costs taxpayers millions each year, and has gone largely unnoticed because the details of the arrangements are most often negotiated behind closed doors.
Luckily this practice, popularly known as “union release time,” may be coming to an end in many parts of the nation.
Severe budget problems in California, Colorado, Arizona and other states have increased scrutiny on labor spending, with critics highlighting union release time as a disgusting waste of taxpayer money at a time when most schools and municipalities can least afford it.
Education Action Group has documented different forms of union release time in our reviews of teacher contracts in numerous states, and the issue has been probed in depth by researchers like Ben DeGrow of the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center.
Educators are often released from their regular duties with pay – either full-time, part-time or on a per-diem basis – to serve as union officials. They are free to use school time to handle grievances, attend collective bargaining sessions, lobby government officials, do political work, and perform other union-related activities.
Recent media reports from Denver and lawsuits filed in Arizona and California are bringing needed attention to the unnecessary expense, the first step in provoking corrective action.
The issue is coming to light most often in states and individual school districts with large budget deficits, including Colorado, where the Denver Post recently published a detailed report on union release time in the state’s 20 largest districts.
The newspaper’s findings confirmed what EAG and DeGrow have already exposed: taxpayers are subsidizing the state’s wealthy and powerful teachers union by millions of dollars each year.
The ugly, expensive truth
Colorado’s 20 largest school districts with union contracts spent a combined $5.8 million on salary and benefits over the past five years for school employees to work for their local teachers union, according to the Post.
The stipulations of the arrangements varied by school district – from full time off at full district expense to a set number of days with union reimbursement for a portion of the cost. In recent years, the most expensive agreements cost taxpayers in Douglas County, Adams 12, and Brighton 27 districts $1.3 million, $629,457, and $626,118, respectively.
The Denver Post found that only one of the 20 union contracts reviewed did not require the school district to spend tax money on release time for union business.
Colorado StateTreasurer Walker Stapleton put the issue in plain terms for the Post.
“It’s a shame the money isn’t getting into the classrooms and to students,” he said. “It’s another example of the stranglehold that unions have on education funding in Colorado.”
Unfortunately, the problem extends far beyond the Centennial State.
EAG has documented union release time clauses written into teacher contracts in Michigan, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Ohio and other states. In many cases, we submitted public information requests for the cost of this union perk, and the results ranged widely based on the details of the agreements and the size of the districts.
In Ohio’s 18,000-student Lakota school district, for example, the local union president was granted half time off from teaching duties during the 2008-09 school year to work for the union at taxpayer expense. The union chipped in for a quarter of the expense, but the provision ultimately cost Lakota schools $38,000 in 2008-09.
At the Paterson school district in New Jersey, the union contract stipulates that the district must release several union officers from their school duties with full pay and benefits. Three district employees were released from their duties for the entire 2009-10 school year, and all were paid over $100,000 in salary by the district. The teachers union reimbursed Paterson schools for more than half, but taxpayers were left on the hook for $80,000.
We’ve also found expensive union release time provisions from contracts in Michigan and Indiana. The Rochester, Michigan district paid about $120,000 in total compensation for a teacher who worked full time as union president during the 2008-09 school year. The price tag was about $130,000 in the Troy school district, $50,000 in Ann Arbor, and $75,000 in Kalamazoo during the same school year.
Indiana’s Fort Wayne schools subsidized its union president’s compensation by nearly $25,000 in 2009-10.
The irony is that those same union officials use their paid release time to pressure school boards to increase salaries and benefits, and the financial burden on residents. It’s a disgraceful circle of tax and spend that is leaving knowledgeable taxpayers dizzy and nauseous.
What makes matters worse is that many schools do not track the amount spent on union release time.
“It’s bad enough that they pay for union release time at all, but to not even have a basic level of accountability, especially in these tighter budget times?” the Independence Institute’s DeGrow told the Denver Post. “It’s kind of appalling.”
With school budgets drying up, the pressure has increased for district and labor officials to cut back or eliminate union release time. In Colorado’s Douglas County, the district’s new superintendent, Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, cut payments for the union leave nearly in half last year, and is expected to eliminate it altogether in the coming weeks.
“Going forward, my responsibility is to do what’s right for our students in these economic circumstances and to be accountable for taxpayer dollars,” she told the Denver Post.
Other Colorado school districts, including Aurora, Thompson and Adams 12, are phasing out the contract provision, as well.
In California, union officials in the Vista Unified School District agreed to pay $80,000 to settle a district lawsuit seeking reimbursement for $128,242 spent on union release time. Perhaps more importantly, the union promised to pay its own way in the future.
A lawsuit filed in Phoenix is challenging union release time for the city’s seven labor unions. Phoenix’s union contracts allow for more than 73,000 hours of annual release time for city workers to conduct union business at taxpayer expense, according to the Goldwater Institute, a non-partisan government watchdog organization behind the lawsuit.
The Institute is representing two city taxpayers, William Cheatham and Marcus Huey, who contend that the agreements violate the state constitution, which prohibits “using taxpayer dollars to subsidize private entities without proportionate, tangible benefits in return,” according to the Institute.
Both examples illustrate that taxpayers are catching on to the union’s free labor scheme, and we suspect that reports like those recently published in the Denver Post will only increase pressure to address it.
As more taxpayers become aware of the union subsidies, we believe most will come to the same conclusion as Clint Bolick, director for the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.
“Taxpayer money would be used exclusively for public purposes,” he said. “The practice of shoveling millions of taxpayer dollars into union coffers must be stopped.”