During most of her 25 years as a public schoolteacher, Jane Ladley did not have much use for the teachers' union, and now that she's retired, she's taking things one giant step further: She's suing it.
On Thursday, the 61-year-old former Avon Grove district teacher and another teacher from Lancaster County filed a lawsuit against the state's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, over the handling of money they were required to pay in lieu of union dues.
Ladley, who in 2013 cited religious grounds for opting out of her local union, and fellow teacher Chris Meier contended the PSEA was thwarting their liberty to donate the escrowed funds to charities of their choice, which are linked to politically conservative groups or causes.
"It's my money and my choice," said Ladley, who was turned down in her request to donate the money that she paid last year - $435.14, to be exact - to the Constitutional Organization of Liberty, a youth education nonprofit.
The suit, filed in Lancaster County with backing from the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm created to do battle with public-sector employee unions, is the latest skirmish in the fight over the handling of millions of dollars in union dues that are typically deducted from the paychecks of public workers. Pennsylvania lawmakers have been weighing legislation that would end mandatory payroll deductions of dues.
A 1988 state law allows teachers' unions to require educators to pay union dues or, if they successfully opt out of the union on religious grounds, make a "fair share" payment. Typically, it is about 70 percent of dues and is channeled to a mutually agreed-upon nonreligious charity.
PSEA spokesman David Broderick said that of the 200 or so other people who have claimed religious objections, only five are under review.
"We make every effort to accommodate the requests of people like this," he said. "We're delighted to do it, and we have a process that makes sure we follow the law."
Ladley, who had worked in other districts, said that during the first 17 years she worked in Avon Grove, the union was not an "agency shop," meaning she wasn't required to join or pay dues, so she didn't.
But in 2013-14, her last year as a teacher, Avon Grove became an "agency shop" district, and Ladley invoked her right to opt out.
"My biblical beliefs are opposed to some of the groups that the PSEA funds," she said, citing Planned Parenthood and its abortion work.
Broderick said its records from the last 15 years show the union has never contributed directly to Planned Parenthood.
Ladley, who most recently was an instructional support teacher at a salary of $87,000, said she often counseled new teachers against joining the union. "I tried to explain, if you're a good teacher doing your job, you don't need that," she said.
Nathan R. Bohlander, an attorney with the Fairness Center, said that the 1988 law stipulated only that the money could not be forwarded to religious organizations. He and Ladley say they were told that the PSEA's "internal unwritten policy" prevents the money from going to organizations that are too political, guidelines that the lawsuit says are not supported legally.
Ladley said that she initially asked that her payments go to a scholarship fund of the Coalition for Advancing Freedom, a Chester County-based group that opposes the Common Core classroom standards and the Affordable Care Act, among other causes. She said the PSEA nixed that and did not respond to her request on a second choice, the Constitutional Organization of Liberty.
Meier, the other teacher in the suit, had asked that his money be passed along to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which offers legal aid to teachers, typically in opposition to unions. Bohlander said that request was turned down because it was viewed as a conflict of interest.
Broderick said the PSEA sends out letters with a list of some suggested charities, such as Special Olympics, Make a Wish Foundation, Alzheimer's Association, American Cancer Society, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and United Way.
Ladley said she believed that the fair-share funds were her money and not the PSEA's, so she should be able to donate to any nonreligious charity she wants.
"It should be my choice for my money as long as it meets the requirements of the law," Ladley said.