Legal issues surrounding MTA arrangement were known before split with CTA

05/16/2014 5:06 PM

05/16/2014 9:58 PM

Legal issues surrounding the arrangement the Modesto Teachers Association had to pay staff through the school district were known and discussed well before the local sought to separate itself from its state affiliate, the California Teachers Association and the MTA have confirmed.

What evolved into election turmoil and an ongoing court battle surrounding the MTA began with a request for legal help, the state union says. An information sheet labeled “How we got here” begins with the request from a retired MTA executive director, concerned that his retirement credit was being questioned by the California State Teachers Retirement System.

“A previous executive director has been informed that his service credit is under review, and he has filed a statement which has yet to be answered. That statement was sent to (CalSTRS) on Nov. 14, 2013,” said MTA First Vice President Darrel James via email Friday. James said the MTA consulted two attorneys, one of whom was from the state union, and both concluded the prior director’s service credit was appropriate.

As the state’s largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association works with CalSTRS to resolve member issues, said CTA representative Rhonnie Tinsley. “CTA must get to the bottom of that,” Tinsley said. To not do so “would put all of your pensions at risk,” she told MTA members gathered Thursday for an informational meeting.

“MTA would not risk the pensions of any member,” James wrote. “I find it highly offensive that anyone would suggest this.”

Tinsley, Bill McMurray and Larry Allen are trustees appointed over MTA by the state organization May 5 in an effort to block a disaffiliation vote sparked by a dispute over how MTA pays its executive director. A court ruling Thursday put the trusteeship on hold, giving the MTA clear control of its assets until legal actions filed by both sides can be heard May 30.

The balloting went ahead May 6, with members soundly defeating the move to break away from the statewide group.

In light of that, longtime MTA member Gladys Williams told the group, “We need to focus on getting things back together.”

The move to disaffiliate came after the state union said the MTA could not keep its $280,000 annual staffing grant unless it paid its employees directly. The Modesto chapter pays its executive director through payments to the school district, keeping the former teacher on the district rolls and accruing retirement credit as if still in a classroom.

Out of 1,000 local chapters of the California Teachers Association, 23 of which hire their own staff, only the Modesto local has an arrangement to pay this job through the school district, state union representatives said.

“It was determined that this model not only created a problem with STRS, but was also in violation of the (CTA staffing grant),” the CTA information sheet says.

The CalSTRS problem refers to whether the union office job qualifies for teachers retirement system credit. Its duties do not involve teaching, serving students or supervising those who do; therefore, it does not match the definition of creditable service as laid out in a CalSTRS advisory to employers.

Elected officers and superintendents have special exemptions, allowing them to stay in the CalSTRS system. The executive director is appointed, serving at the will of the MTA board, election fliers by MTA say.

Modesto City Schools does not make the distinction, however, counting the appointed director and elected president as equally eligible for paid leave, their salaries and benefits covered by the union.

“We are required to follow the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, unless (the Public Employees Relations Board) or a court finds the term or application of the term to be illegal,” Superintendent Pam Able said by email Friday, responding to a Bee inquiry. “We have not received any information declaring the Article V, Section V Association Leave, illegal,” she wrote.

Keeping district paychecks for its executive directors was at the heart of the MTA move to disaffiliate from the state organization.

To comply with rules of a $280,000 annual staffing grant, the MTA director would have to resign from the district, an MTA election flier explains, “In doing so, that individual would give up the best years of developing multipliers in the STRS retirement system in the hope that they would, after five years, vest in the CTA pension trust.”

The difference is significant for the individual. A teacher retiring through CalSTRS reaches maximum credit at age 63, which for someone earning the Modesto City Schools average of $76,383 would be a pension of $55,000 a year. A worker with the same salary, retiring under Social Security, could retire at 70 earning less than half that.

The MTA leadership voted to lose the grant rather than change the arrangement, and asked the membership to split from the state union. The $280,000 grant would have been more than offset by the $1.2 million the local sends to its state affiliate each year.

The MTA’s policies for disaffiliation allow a simple majority vote to break away. The state group’s rules call for a two-thirds vote of the membership. Modesto’s decision to hold the election under its own rules led to the trusteeship, CTA trustees said.

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