Guest Column: Union also does disservice to Rockford teachers

December 14, 2011

By Tim Hughes

In her Nov. 16 Rock River Times guest column, Mary Jo Powers of Watchdogs for Ethics in Education says the Rockford school board is at war with its educators. I would suggest the teacher union bureaucracy is equally at war with its rank and file members where certain issues are concerned, and the ethics watchdogs would do well to sniff out and make known one of District 205’s most unethical pieces of business: namely, taxpayer subsidies to the teachers’ union, or as some like to call it, Taxpayer Ripoff 101.

Taxpayer subsidies to the teachers’ union take different forms, ranging from taxpayer-paid payroll deduction of union dues and PAC contributions to free use of in-school mail service and board-paid retirement benefits for union officials, some of whom have been on leave of absence for 30 years or more doing union business, not always connected with District 205 business! Subsidies may also include release time with pay for teachers who use their personal leave, which they don’t have to account for, to drive voters to the polls on election day and man telephone banks during election drives. In addition to being paid for such days, which can be accumulated up to six days for 205 teachers, this also leads to taxpayer costs for providing a substitute for the absent teacher. A few teachers have even been known to use their “personal leave days,” which they don’t have to answer for, to man their part-time department store Christmas jobs. Talk about unethical! Some of these subsidies would actually be illegal under federal labor laws if the teachers’ union were a private sector union.

Try finding out how much District 205 provides in “freebies” to the union, and you encounter the mother of all brick walls. The sum may be minimal or may, even in a medium-size district like Rockford, be substantial. Make no doubt about it; such subsidies do exist. Ted Biondo, a former school board member, who has had a lot to say about taxpayer subsidies concerning certain things, was tight lipped when I once asked him about school district subsidies to the teachers’ union, saying only that yes, they did exist, and yes, they don’t come cheap! A school secretary I queried about board-paid deduction of union dues and PAC contributions said that yes, the secretaries did provide such service to the union free of charge, but the secretaries did this work at home on their free time. Wait a minute! Doesn’t that violate a fundamental union principle of work without financial compensation, or am I just behind the times?

Various state legislatures make some of these subsidies mandatory, but I know of no state that requires the subsidies be made available free of charge.

The current school board has made a point of pledging openness in school matters, so it should be open regarding how much “free service” they’re providing the teachers’ union that the teachers’ union could well be paying instead of using that extra cash to fuel the Springfield, Washington cocktail circuit. The income accrued by the board, which might be substantial, could go to giving teachers a salary increase or perhaps offset the tenfold increase the board is demanding in teacher contributions to health benefits. If nothing else, teachers and the public are entitled to know the truth about board-paid subsidies to the REA. People think I’m anti-teachers’ union. I’m not. I’m anti-teachers’ union bureaucracy, which is a polite way of saying I’m anti-parasite.

Tim Hughes is a former teacher in Rockford School District 205 who coached debate and taught English at Auburn High School for 20 years. At Auburn, he coached three debate teams to first-place national championships.

From the Dec. 14-20, 2011, issue

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