Retirement – and proposed changes to how it is figured in Georgia– may well be an emotional issue for some teachers, who regard a decent pension as compensation for an underpaid and often undervalued job.
Photo: Dreamstime/TNS
Photo: Dreamstime/TNS

OPINION: Why teachers are upset over retirement bill 

It wasn’t the ideal way to open a legislative hearing on House Bill 109, which seeks to change the Teacher Retirement System. 

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, the clearly frustrated chair of the House Retirement Committee and sponsor of HB 109, began by recognizing lawmakers were being flooded with irate comments about his legislation, citing a colleague who received 1,800 emails.

Saying he owed the House as a whole an apology for the onslaught, Benton said the emails represented a “scare tactic to get retired educators and current educators to write their representative. It is obvious the people who wrote the emails, most of them, had no idea what was in the bill, they just wrote what they were told to write.”

“I don’t know how many I got,” said Benton, himself a retired educator. “I deleted every one of them. Because, for the most part, they had not read the legislation, and I felt like it was on emotion only. And if everything we passed down here was on emotion, we probably wouldn’t get a whole lot done.”

Retirement and Benton’s proposed changes are an emotional issue for teachers, who regard a decent pension as compensation for an underpaid and often undervalued job. Several speakers called retirement benefits a crucial recruiting tool at a time when enrollment is falling in teacher prep programs.

As to all the irate emails, I understand as I get a few myself. Sometimes, however, it’s my fault that my readers misunderstood what I wrote. I may not have gone deep enough to explain a complex issue. So, it can be with legislation, which is often densely written to satisfy lawyers rather than average citizens.

(Also, legislation can be marked up and rewritten for a committee review, yet still show the old language on the General Assembly website, which is what the public depends on to keep informed. )

In addition, Georgia teachers are often skeptical of promises by the state -- and have history to back them up. Anyone remember those short-lived National Board Certification stipends?

Teachers are also aware that, at the same time Gov.  Brian Kemp is wooing them with raises and reductions in state-mandated exams, he’s backing efforts to divert funding from public schools to private ones.

A rueful Benton acknowledged the political pressures on lawmakers to oppose his bill, telling his committee that HB 109 may not be “the politic thing to do, but it is the policy thing to do.”

Those pressures and balking from some committee members during the hearing led Benton to strike much of the significant language from HB 109. 

While the bill initially included changes to the average final salary calculation, a cap on annual payments to retirees, and eligibility requirements for new hires, it now only addresses these two points: 

For newly hired teachers, HB 109 would end the practice of accumulating unused sick leave to apply to retirement. That practice can add $1,000 or more to an annual pension. “When I first began teaching, you couldn’t accumulate sick days,” said Benton. “If you didn’t use them, you lost them.”

The bill limits cost of living adjustments to once a year for all current and future TRS members. Now, employees get a 1.5% increase twice a year; giving the COLA once-a-year represents a $17 million savings, said Benton.

Benton’s efforts to rein in costs in the Teacher Retirement System are grounded in a 2019 state audit that sounded an alarm about its future sustainability and viability. I encourage teachers to read the audit, if they haven’t yet.

TRS administers retirement benefits for employees of local school systems and the University System of Georgia. As the state audit summarized: 

TRS is a defined benefit plan that provides a guaranteed lifetime benefit for those who have 30 years of creditable service within the system or attain age 60 with 10 years of service. The employee contribution rate is currently set at 6%. There were approximately 127,000 retirees and 226,000 active members as of June 30, 2018. A TRS retiree with a final average salary of $50,000 and 30 years of creditable service would receive an annual benefit of $30,000.

The problem, according to the audit, is that the investment and inflation risks inherent in guaranteed, lifetime benefits like TRS are borne by the employer. 

As the AJC reported last year:

The Great Recession greatly set back the system, which counts on a certain rate of return on its investments. The number of teachers and employees contributing to the fund dropped because jobs were cut or positions went unfilled, and pay raises, which boost employee payments to the system, were scarce until this year. Retirees are living longer, which means more is being paid out.

The audit states:

Recently, the state allocated an additional $224 million for TRS in the fiscal year 2018 budget and $365 million in the fiscal year 2019 budget, due to increased employer contribution rates. 

Read here and here about the shortfalls. 

While the 2018 total employer contribution was $2 billion in 2018, the state audit projected it could reach $4.4 billion in fiscal year 2045.

Testimony at Tuesday’s hearing showed TRS realized a rise in its investments last year, leading the state's required contribution to go down by $190 million.

Despite that uptick, Benton still sees a need for changes to the Teacher Retirement System to ensure its future, saying legislators bowing to the public pressure were only “kicking the can down the road.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.