SPRINGFIELD – Imagine paying a teacher $141,105 not to teach.
That’s what taxpayers in St. Charles, Ill., are doing.
Pam Turriff is an elementary school teacher by training and she collects a six-digit salary plus benefits from the St. Charles School District.
But instead of teaching, her full-time job is to be president of the local teachers union. But it is taxpayers — not union members — who pay her salary.
Turiff declined to comment for this story.
But her situation is hardly an anomaly.
It’s a practice called “release time,” in which government workers are paid a taxpayer-funded salary not to serve the public but to do union work.
While some downstate communities, such as Galesburg, engage in this practice it is becoming increasingly common in the Chicago suburbs.
The reason? Unions are demanding this perk at the bargaining table and it is being incorporated into school district labor agreements.
“This is a plague on local, state and the federal governments,” said Trey Kovacs, an analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “Something that gets under-reported is that these union presidents or vice presidents who are 100 percent release time are normally getting all of their benefits paid by the taxpayers, too, and they are also getting a pension.”
The primary reason school boards agree to these provisions is to ensure labor peace, he said.
But Tom Tully, president of the Glenbard Education Association, says the release time he receives enables him to work more collaboratively with school administrators.
“I work on curriculum issues, evaluation issues and hear concerns from teachers,” he said. “That saves the human resources department a lot of time. I like to think by working collaboratively we are able to help taxpayers by coming up with ways to be more efficient.”
But not everyone in Glen Ellyn views the release time as a benefit to the taxpayers.
“This is just shocking. There is no reason taxpayers should be paying for the costs of a private entity like a union to administer itself. And that is what you are essentially doing,” said Heidi Holan, a Glen Ellyn resident who made an unsuccessful bid for the state legislature last year.
In Glen Ellyn, where Holan lives, the Glenbard school district provides two-fifths release time to Tully, who earns $121,363 as a driver’ education teacher. The union receives the benefit of 40 percent of his salary or $48,545.
“I do think there is value to having a full-time release person,” said Schaumburg School Superintendent Andrew DuRoss. “This is something that is negotiated into our contract. We have an excellent relationship with the union. I think having a good relationship with the union is of great value to the students and families of this township.”
Schaumburg Education Association President Paul Beranek receives a salary of $106,989 plus benefits from the school district but works full time for the union. The union in turn reimburses the district for $45,191 leaving taxpayers on the hook for $62,798.
Schaumburg resident Joe Folisi finds the practice wasteful.
“Look, if the union wants to pay its president, they ought to pay them out of member dues,” Folisi said. “There is no reason they should be paid by the taxpayers. The school board keeps raising the tax levy and they spend money on things like this. Maybe when they look for a place to cut, they should start cutting there.”
Beranek also declined comment for this story.
At a time when school districts are facing cutbacks, questions are being asked whether this is the best use of taxpayer resources.
“I think this would absolutely outrage taxpayers,” Holan said. “But I don’t think most taxpayers have any idea this is actually going on. There is an absolute lack of transparency here.”
But the issue goes beyond questions about stewardship with issues of legality being raised.
Last year, the practice of union release was found to be unconstitutional in Arizona.
Maricopa County Arizona Superior Court judge Katherine Cooper ruled that release time violates Arizona’s gift laws, which stipulate that public funds cannot be used for private purposes.
The Illinois Constitution has a similar provision, but the issue of union release time has not been litigated in the Land of Lincoln.
“Like 40 other states, we have a gift clause in our constitution that just says government cannot give gifts or subsidies to private entities or corporations,” said Jon Riches, an attorney with Goldwater Institute, which successfully challenged the release time practice in Arizona. He said tax dollars must serve a public purpose.
“And when you think about it, release time doesn’t even do that. When someone is negotiating at the bargaining table, they are the exact opposite – they are adverse to the government,” he said. “So it’s hard for unions to argue it serves a public purpose when unions are oftentimes an adverse entity to the governmental body they were hired to serve.”
Lisa Nuss is president of the Classroom Teachers Association, which represents workers in junior highs and elementary schools in Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Inverness, Hoffman Estates, Arlington Heights, Schaumburg and South Barrington.
Nuss, a school librarian who earns $93,254 is released 100 percent of the time but the union only reimburses the district for 50 percent of her pay.
Nuss did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Clearly this only benefits the union,” Kovacs said. “This in no way helps students or taxpayers.”
Scott Reeder is a reporter for Illinois News Network, a division of the Illinois Policy Institute.