Teachers lobby for retirement benefits

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Kristi Chakrabarti | 15 years, 3 months ago

MCEA and state teachers union hold meeting to push for an increase in teacher pensions

The Montgomery County Education Association's (MCEA) Annual Legislative Breakfast on Dec. 3 focused on teacher pension as part of a state teachers' union push to improve retirement benefits.

The meeting, held at the Montgomery County Convention Center, attracted over 1,000 people including teachers and local legislators. The large turnout "sends a demanding message that we need pension reform now," said MCEA President Bonnie Cullison, who had hoped that at least 300 people would attend.

Closing the gap

The breakfast gave teachers the chance to hear from and speak to their local legislators to bring the issue of teacher pension to the forefront of Maryland's legislative agenda. "School employees are fed up with the miserable teacher benefits in Maryland," said Cullison at the breakfast. "The time has come to do something about it. If Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana can provide better pension, so can Maryland." Currently, Maryland ranks last nationally for the pension amount provided by the state.

The Maryland State Teacher's Association (MSTA) will propose a reform bill next year to the Maryland General Assembly. The bill would raise the final pension after 30 years from 38 percent to 60 percent for all educators, including teachers, administrators, building services workers and bus drivers, according to Cullison.

The three main goals of the bill are to increase pension benefits, apply the benefits to all years of service and have a reasonable contribution by teachers to their pension, said Abby Hendrix, co-chair of the MCEA Political Action and Legislative Support Committee, at the convention.

Teachers receive a percentage of their average highest salary from three consecutive years, known as the Average Final Compensation, of teaching towards retirement from the state. Full pension is based on 30 years of service. After that time, Maryland teachers annually receive about 38 percent of their Average Final Compensation.

Legislators representing Montgomery County who attended the breakfast all voiced their support of increasing pension because of the importance of teachers in maintaing strong statewide education programs. The legislators also emphasized that the support of the other 22 counties in Maryland is needed to change the existing legislative program.

The issue of teacher pensions is "not big enough" at Blair, said English resource teacher Vickie Adamson, who was one of eight Blair teachers to attend the breakfast. The amount of activism at Blair is relatively low partly because many teachers believe that there is not much they can do to initiate change, according to Leslie Backus, one of Blair's MCEA representatives. Teachers primarily "focus their energies on the immediate; that's where their attention is," she said.

If teachers do not plan for the future, the current system may not be enough to bring them financial security in the long run, according to Backus. "Most young teachers are worried about money. They have to set up their own retirement. If they don't think to do that, they will be in serious trouble," Backus said.

According to the MSTA, efforts to increase pension rates have been ongoing since 1998, as the group feared the consequences of poor benefits on retaining and recruiting high-quality teachers. "It's important for us that educators want to commit a lifetime to this profession," said Cullison.

Previous efforts

Delegate Jean Cryor (R-district 15) explained that she has been hearing about pension reform for the past four or five years, but that the issue was especially strong in last year's session.

Last year, the Teachers' and Local Employees' Retirement Enhancement Act of 2005 died in committee in both the House and Senate, disappointing many teachers. "It's a shame teachers are held hostage to the budget," said Delegate Henry Heller (D-district 19).

The bill had included measures to change the formula used to calculate retirement allowances, but it did not pass due to "budgetary concerns," according to Delegate Adrienne Mandel (D-district 19), who joined the 95 delegates out of 141 to cosponsor the bill. It takes more than a year to bring a bill to its correct format and gain support from the rest of the General Assembly, she explained.

The Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act of 2005 addressed the issue of teacher pension, stating that teacher pension reform is "necessary to retain and maintain a high quality workforce." It also created a Joint Committee on Pensions to study the condition of teacher pension and develop legislation to improve it in 2006.

Exodus of teachers

The MSTA hopes that Maryland's $1.2 billion budget surplus and its designation as America's third wealthiest state, according to The Baltimore Sun, will aid pension reform efforts for next year.

The surplus has caused the MSTA to intensify its efforts to increase benefits. Even though Cryor believes that changes will be made next year, legislators cannot guarantee a sustained benefit plan based on the current budget. "You can't do pension on one year's good news. Things look promising; I'm optimistic that pension will be reformed," she said.

The state of Maryland produces about 2,000 new teachers each year, but an additional 6,000 teachers must be recruited from other states annually, which may prove increasingly difficult if benefits are not enhanced, Heller said. Losing a teacher costs about $100,000 per district, and Maryland loses nearly 7,000 of its 62,000 teachers annually, according to the MSTA.

Pennsylvania offers almost twice Maryland's final percentage for its pension plan and is ranked second in the country, but teachers themselves add a higher percentage to their retirement accounts than teachers in Maryland. By raising the annual pension amount to 60 percent, Maryland would move to about 20th in national ranking, which would make it more "competitive with other states," said Daniel Kaufman, communication director of the MSTA.

Retaining quality teachers is critical for improving student achievement, said Kaufman. If other states have more attractive benefit packages, teachers go elsewhere for employment. "Good teachers are not coming to Maryland, even if salaries are lower [elsewhere]. That's just good professional planning," said Cullison.

Kristi Chakrabarti. Kristi Chakrabarti is finally a Magnet senior who is obsessed with basketball and is a die-hard Wizards fan. When she is not religiously following the NBA, she enjoys playing tennis and reading. Her favorite TV shows are Friends and ER and her favorite food is … More »

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