TRS, KEA to teachers: Keep calm and carry on
Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
The offices of the Teachers’ Retirement System and the Kentucky Education Association have had something in common this year: Questions from members worried about rumors and reports they are hearing about changes to the retirement system.
“We are hearing a lot of feedback from our members about rumors they are hearing, and it’s every day,” said Beau Barnes, general counsel and deputy secretary of the Teachers’ Retirement System, who called the situation “unprecedented.”
“‘Are they going to take sick leave away,’ for example – that’s nonstop, a steady, steady issue that doesn’t go away. That’s always an issue we hear about every year, but this year it’s been just about every day our counselors are hearing that,” he said.
Rumors also were rampant during the 2017 legislative session, he added. The system also has seen a corresponding increase in visitors to its Frankfort office.
However, the number of applications for retirement in the peak months of July, June and August, respectively, were comparable to the past two years, so talk of public pension system reforms has not created an exodus at this time.
“I think that’s due a lot to the fact that we’re trying to tell people not to be alarmed yet, that nothing has changed yet, so you should go on with your plans,” said Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, which said her office also is getting “calls all the time” about rumored changes.
Likewise, Barnes said he reminds teachers – who are not eligible for Social Security – of the statutory “inviolable contract” that guarantees them a pension.
The governor is expected to call a special session sometime this fall to deal with the pension crisis, which envelops TRS and the Kentucky Retirement Systems. Lawmakers will be studying recommendations from a consulting firm that were to be released after this issue of the Kentucky School Advocate was printed.
“Everything is just a waiting game and it’s dependent on what takes place during a special session if and when, and what occurs there, “ Winkler said. “I just know my colleagues are all on a heightened sense of alert about what the future holds and really weighing options as to how long they stay in the profession. And I’ve also had a lot of younger teachers say ‘Do I need to change my major?’”
The concerns are not unfounded, at least not for incoming teachers. “Almost without a doubt there’s going to be agreement on a new benefit tier for teachers – those individuals who are not in the classroom yet,” Barnes said. And some key lawmakers have said they’ll be looking at benefits not covered by the inviolable contract.
One of those is a sick leave benefit that has been a focus of concern. It allows unused sick leave to be rolled into a teacher’s final working year, thereby increasing the pension benefit. But Barnes said some key members of the General Assembly understand and want to avoid the problems that would be caused by an all-inclusive abrupt ending to that policy. “With one in five teachers eligible to retire, we would have an exodus and that would have a negative actuarial impact on the retirement system, because we’d be paying out retirement allowances, benefits years earlier than we otherwise would,” he said.
Winkler said there aren’t enough teachers to replace those retirees under that scenario. “It’s ultimately going to affect the kids, which is our utmost concern,” she said. “Because if we lose experienced teaching force, even for the teaching force in general that has less than five years of experience that aren’t even vested yet, to say ‘This isn’t for me, I’m going to find something else to do,’ that’s going to be very detrimental to kids.”
Board View ... and teacher’s view
Dayton Independent school board Chairwoman Rosann Sharon, who retired from that district as a math teacher with some of those much-discussed sick days rolled into her pension, knows the value of that benefit.
Sharon, who still volunteers at the elementary school every day, retired with 32 years of service, but said, “I can remember years and years ago when I was a young teacher, our assistant superintendent standing up in front of all the teachers and saying how important our sick days were and that we shouldn’t use them because when we retire they count toward our retirement. I retired with 323 sick days, if that tells you anything.”
Hopkins County school board Vice Chairwoman Suzanne Duncan said she hears teachers’ apprehension about the path pension reform could take – both in her school district and in the Christian County school system, where she is a special education teacher at Hopkinsville High School.
She said she’s most concerned that “it just seems like it gets further and further from being hopeful of finding a solution” to shoring up the Teachers’ Retirement System.
Duncan said she also worries about the effect on the future teaching force. “One of the securities in the past has been, at least you have a retirement fund, you have some things that other jobs don’t offer.”