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These 9 retired Lancaster County educators have received $1.3M in pension benefits despite losing their teaching certificate

Saving money for pension

Todd Sheerer, a former teacher and band director at Warwick High School, was sentenced to three to nine years in prison for having sexual contact with a 15-year-old student.

Former Elizabethtown Area High School science teacher Robert Evans Jr. was sentenced to three to six years for sexually assaulting an 11-year-old and offering her $10,000 to not press charges.

Richard Russell, formerly a guidance counselor at Landis Run Intermediate School, was sentenced to 37 months for possessing child pornography.

None of them are allowed to teach in Pennsylvania.

All of them are collecting taxpayer-funded pensions.

And they’re not alone.

An LNP investigation found at least nine retired Lancaster County educators still collect pension benefits despite losing their teaching license due to serious allegations or criminal convictions.

Using data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Public School Employees Retirement System, court records and newspaper archives, LNP found these retired educators have collected $1.3 million in pension benefits since 2003.

Among the nine, six were charged with a crime. Five pleaded guilty. One — Christina Layser, a former Reynolds Middle School math teacher — had her charges dropped after she participated in an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program.

Three lost their certification over accusations — often sex-related — that never led to charges, despite school officials saying they contacted police.

But losing a pension, LNP found, isn’t so easy.

Pension forfeiture law

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill that would strip pensions from state employees who plead guilty or no contest to, or are convicted of, felonies or crimes punishable by more than five years of imprisonment. But the bill, authored by Republican Sen. John DiSanto of Dauphin and Perry counties, would only strip pensions if those offenses are related to the employee’s job.

In other words, if a teacher commits a crime outside the walls of a school, it’s possible his pension will stay intact.

That’s a concerning loophole in the law, said Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capital, a nonpartisan voter education group in Pennsylvania.

“We should have a zero tolerance for inappropriate contact with children. Period,” Epstein, who also serves on the Central Dauphin school board, said, adding that sex-related offenses should warrant automatic pension forfeiture.

A high profile example is the case of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach who in 2012 was convicted of sexually abusing 10 children. A Commonwealth Court restored his $4,900-a-month pension because he technically wasn’t a Penn State employee when he committed the crimes.

“As a school board, our hands are tied, and it’s frustrating,” Epstein said. “And I think we need to extend protections for children from employees in and outside of the classroom.”

The portion of the original Pension Forfeiture Act that made forfeitable offenses retroactive to 1972 was cut in DiSanto’s bill. Several court cases, dating from the 1980s and 1990s, have found the retroactive provision unconstitutional either under the constitution’s Remedy’s clause or “contract impairment” rulings.

The rulings meant employees who were hired before the original 1978 law went into effect and never voluntarily changed job titles are essentially excluded, said PSERS spokesman Steve Esack. Similarly, employees who were hired before sex-related offenses were added in 2004 and did not voluntarily change job titles are excluded from that portion of the law.

Why? Because the rulings found employees were not contractually informed at the time of hire that such a crime would cause you to lose a pension, Esack said.

"Ideally these folks for the crimes they committed should not be receiving a pension, but they’re legally able to receive one because of the laws that were in place in the past," said Jonathan Humma, DiSanto’s legislative director.

Losing certification isn’t enough

To risk losing a pension, an accusation isn’t enough, even if it led to that employee losing his teaching certificate. The conviction or plea must be there, Esack said.

That’s good news for Scott Rupp.

Rupp, a retired special education teacher at the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, allegedly asked a 17-year-old student on Facebook if she wanted to have a threesome with him and his wife, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

An IU13 spokeswoman said Columbia Borough police were contacted. No charges were filed.

Similar situations involve Anthony Corl, a former English teacher who allegedly had sexual relationships with students at Conestoga Valley High School, and John Erisman, a former Penn Manor High School social studies teacher who allegedly made inappropriate contact with students.

In both cases, according to newspaper records and comments from school officials, the police were notified. Again, no charges were filed.

‘You could argue loopholes ... exist’

Humma said new legislation isn’t merited so soon after DiSanto’s bill was passed. “But it’s always something that can be revisited,” he said.

Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument of Landisville, a cosponsor of DiSanto’s pension forfeiture bill, said he’s open to a conversation with local school officials about potential improvements in the law, particularly regarding retroactivity, types of forfeitable crimes and whether they should include non-job-related offenses.

“You could argue loopholes do, in fact, exist,” he said.

More consideration arguably should be placed on educators who surrender or lose their teaching certificate, he said.

“If it clearly has an impact on their public service, than I think there’s certainly an argument that can be made that the forfeiture should apply,” Aument said.

Michael Torres, spokesman for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, said DiSanto’s bill was a good start.

"Clearly, the public is interested (in) ethics being reflected in our commonwealth’s pension laws, and lawmakers are taking notice," he said.

Torres said there is “momentum behind addressing compensation for public employees who have committed crimes while in public service,” citing the updated pension forfeiture law.

Esack said PSERS has several protections in place to make sure employees who commit forfeitable crimes don’t fall through the cracks.

It tracks possible pension forfeiture cases through media accounts, tips, employer notification, license enforcement decisions from the Department of Education and the state’s criminal docket reporting system.

"PSERS takes the forfeiture act extremely seriously," Esack said.

Statewide in 2019, PSERS has stripped three educator pensions.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story included incorrect calculations of some retirees' pension amounts to date due to a misinterpretation of PSERS data.

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