Local Teachers Union President Uses District Email for Politics

A local teachers union president in Pennsylvania used her district email to encourage members to lobby against a pension proposal under consideration in Harrisburg.

An amendment sponsored by state Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill) and supported by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has roused the ire of the state’s largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). The proposal would require new employees and employees returning from a leave of absence to enroll in a hybrid pension plan.

The reform, a shift away from “defined benefit” pensions, would save Pennsylvania taxpayers an estimated $11 to $15 billion over the next 30 years.

Donna Edwards, president of the Octorara Area Education Association (OAEA), sent out an email to members using her school district email address, asking recipients to fight against the amendment.

Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure laws defines “indirect lobbying” as “an effort, whether written, oral or by any other medium, to encourage others, including the general public, to take action, the purpose or foreseeable effect of which is to directly influence legislative action or administrative action.”

The Octorara Area School District’s email system, like any other public school district system, was set up and is maintained using taxpayer money. Instead of using the taxpayer-provided email system strictly for district business, Edwards has utilized it to further a PSEA political objective.

“The Corbett/Tobash pension proposal continues to gain momentum as the state budget negotiations heat up,” her email read. “We need to generate as many member calls to State Representatives as possible. This is the only way we can stop the bill.”

Edwards also sent a script for union members to use with their legislators. “It is critical that members contact their State Representative, and follow the script below as soon as possible,” she instructed.

A screenshot of the message follows.

Edwards Email

State legislators from the area did not return phone calls inquiring how many of these form phone calls and emails they received from their constituents.

It is illegal for state legislators in Pennsylvania to use taxpayer resources for politics and lobbying, and there are several politicians that have been sent to jail for it. State Senator LeAnna Washington (D-Philadelphia), for example, was recently charged with theft of services and felony conflict of interest because she had her office staff perform campaign work.

“The evidence will show that Senator Washington pressured her staff into performing political activities using taxpayer dollars for her own personal benefit,” Attorney General Kathleen Kane said in a press release.

PSEA is a highly political organization — it spent millions on politics in 2013. But the union seems to have a de facto exemption when it comes to using taxpayer resources for political purposes.

PSEA has been actively fighting nearly every pension reform proposal suggested in Harrisburg, because government unions benefit from the very generous pension system currently in place. In fact, PSEA lobbied to get the current system in place.

A letter PSEA sent members in 2010 denied the gross underfunding of state pensions and claimed the retirement system was “sound.”

PSEA has also fought the Tobash pension proposal by claiming it unfairly “targets women and new employees.”

PSEA Alert

Using school district email systems for PSEA correspondence is not the only way PSEA and other government-employee labor unions take advantage of taxpayer resources. They also use the school district and the state’s payroll systems to automatically deduct their union dues, rather than collecting those dues themselves.

Legislation to change that practice, like pension reform, has stalled in the House.

Donna Edwards and Octorara School Board President Lisa Bowman did not return requests for comment.