Syracuse Post-Standard  |  May 25, 2017  |  Julie McMahon

An outraged taxpayer is suing the Syracuse City School District for paying the teachers union president’s salary while she does union work.

Helen Street resident Michael Hunter filed a lawsuit against the district and Syracuse Teachers Association earlier this month.

He is critical of a part of the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the union, in which it agrees to pay the union president’s salary.

These types of agreements are relatively common in large school districts. Presidents of teachers and police unions are often “released” from their contractual duties to handle union business full-time.

In many places, the union then reimburses the district for the president’s salary.

Not so in Syracuse.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer money basically,” Hunter said. “If I don’t come forward everyone just turns a blind eye to it. It’s not a lot of money over one year, but over time it adds up.”

In his claim, Hunter and his lawyers estimate the cost to taxpayers since 2008 is about $1.1 million. That’s around $100,000 each year.

District and union officials declined to comment on how the agreement was set up or why. Neither defendant has filed a response in court at this time.

In a statement, the district said it not yet been served the lawsuit, but takes all litigation matters seriously.

STA President Megan Root, a former Corcoran High School teacher, said she declined to comment at the advice of the union attorney and parent union NYSUT.

Hunter is represented by Cameron Macdonald, of the Government Justice Center. Macdonald said the center is a relatively new non-profit firm focused on government fraud and waste. It represents clients pro bono.

Macdonald said Syracuse schools started to pay the teachers union president salary around 2008.

He argued the practice is unconstitutional and violates New York state’s “gift clause,” that prevents municipalities from giving or loaning money to private associations.

In court papers, Hunter argued that “release time” does not advance a public purpose; If anything, the lawsuit says, union activities “are often directly opposed to the interests of District taxpayers.”

Taxpayers have made similar arguments in lawsuits around the country. State legislatures, including those in Michigan and Tennessee, have looked into banning the practice.

Macdonald’s firm is handling another lawsuit involving a Long Island first responders’ union, he said.

A very similar suit is pending in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Two taxpayers there sued the teachers union on the same grounds in 2016.

Macdonald said he not aware of any cases where the plaintiff has succeeded with the claim in court.

Unions have argued in other cases that the teachers union president serves an important function in large districts.

In Syracuse, the president’s duties include resolving disputes between staff and administration, and serving on various committees. She represents about 3,000 employees in a district of 21,000 students.

For his part, Hunter is asking a judge to void the agreement and permanently bar the district from paying for union work. He has not requested monetary damages.

Hunter is an active member of the Conservative Party. He is the party chair for city of Syracuse and worked on Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

He attended city schools and has a daughter at the Institute of Technology at Central High School.

He said his frustration does not stem from his personal experiences with the schools, but from overall waste in city government.

“It’s kind of been bubbling up over the years,” he said. “This is just one piece of the puzzle.”

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