Topeka A Shawnee County judge dealt a setback last week to efforts by the state pension system to reduce the retirement benefits of educators who take time off from their teaching jobs to work as leaders of their local teachers union.
The ruling in favor of Nancy Fritz, a recently retired librarian with the Shawnee Mission School District, effectively reaffirms a longstanding practice in most of the state's larger school districts that allows teachers to continue earning service credit toward their retirement even when they are working full time tending to union business.
It also flatly rejected a relatively new legal policy of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, which argues that such teachers are really union employees and thus should not be entitled to accrue state-funded retirement benefits.
Fritz vs. KPERS opinion ( .PDF )
"I think there’s an assumption that somehow working on issues which have a connection to a local association — negotiations processing and so forth — those all, in my mind, provide a direct benefit and direct service to the employer," David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association, said in a telephone interview.
But KPERS spokeswoman Kristen Basso said the new policy grew out of a Legislative Post Audit report in 2015 that said auditors had identified seven teachers who were being awarded service credit improperly while working for their professional associations.
Of those seven educators, Basso said, one was later found to have actually worked and earned the service credit. One other chose not to appeal the reduction in service credit. But five other individuals, including Fritz, chose to appeal KPERS' decision.
Fritz's was the first case to reach a judicial decision. Other cases involving the Wichita, Olathe and Blue Valley school districts are still pending, Basso said.
According to court records, Fritz was employed by the Shawnee Mission school district from 1975 through 1986 and again from 1993 through 2015. Her official job title during those periods was "professional employee."
During her last five years, however, she also served as president of NEA-Shawnee Mission, the local collective bargaining unit that is affiliated with KNEA. During that time, she was officially on a leave of absence from her duties as a librarian so she could tend to union business, and the union reimbursed the district for the cost of her salary and benefits, which included employer contributions into her KPERS account.
When Fritz retired in August 2015, she received a letter from KPERS saying that she was not entitled to receive service credit for those five years, a decision that effectively cut her benefits by $789 per month.
During an administrative law proceeding, Fritz's attorneys presented affidavits from two former Shawnee Mission superintendents who stated that she was an employee of the district during that time. But an administrative law judge rejected those affidavits and upheld KPERS' decision to deny the service credit for those years.
Fritz then appealed that administrative decision to Shawnee County District Court.
Under KPERS rules, employees are eligible to receive full benefits when their total number of "points," defined as their age plus years of service, add up to 85 or more. Thus, each year, employees earn two points, one for their age and one for the year of service.
KPERS argued that because the union was reimbursing the district for the cost of Fritz's salary and benefits meant that she was really a union employee. But in a 17-page decision Wednesday, Aug. 9, District Judge Evelyn Wilson rejected that argument, saying the source of funding for the job was irrelevant to defining an employee under the state's public pension statutes.
She noted that during those five years, Fritz had a contract with the district defining her job duties, and that she had a district-issued ID card, email address and access to the district's computer network.
She also rejected KPERS' argument that being on a leave of absence from her duties as a librarian made Fritz ineligible to earn service credit because she was, in effect, serving the district in another capacity.
Basso said KPERS is consulting with its tax counsel to decide how it will move forward, but the agency has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling.