Texas teachers simply can’t afford to be retired

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I have spilled barrels of ink in columns on the joys of being a teacher but now some ink needs to be spilled to get educators the help we need.

Along with other school employees and retirees we are facing a nightmare. And that is why 800 educators packed the front lawn of the Gregg County Courthouse recently in the "Use Your Teacher Voice’’ rally.

During the regular state legislative session it felt as if education and educators had been targeted. So now teachers and other school employees, active and retired, are rising up like the proverbial “sleeping giant.’’ Here is why.

Our pension is at risk of being changed when it is the sixth healthiest in the nation. Why would politicians want to mess with something that works? Probably so they can raid the treasure chest.

The fact that Gov. Abbott placed a former Enron executive to head a commission to study a possible change does not give me confidence that public education retirees' best interests are at the heart of this “study.’’

True, our retiree health insurance was in deep trouble because of underfunding. The Texas House came out with a solid plan to undergird the failing system expecting the Senate to add its part.

The state Senate chose not to help, which translates that as of Jan. 1, retirees will use one-third to one-half of their earned pension to pay for their health insurance.

The fact is that during the fund's 30 year history the state funded only .5 percent of payroll instead of the current 1 percent. The active employees and retirees paid, and are paying, the rest.

To add insult to injury, Gov. Abbott has tasked Sen. Bryan Hughes with carrying a bill for the special session that would deny public school employees the right to have their professional association dues subtracted from their pensions and salaries. Talk about a “gag bill,’’ this is it.

This is a blatant attempt to strip associations of membership and public voice. By the way, the proposed bill would exempt our public servant brother and sister firefighters and police.

Also, retirees have not had a cost of living raise in 16 years. And back to that health insurance, the prescription plan has been cut, the benefits have been cut and yet we will pay one-third to one-half of our take home to pay for it. For the average retiree who takes home a $2,000 monthly pension it will eat their check. And, even more heartbreaking is that 30 percent of public school retirees bring in $1,000 or less before insurance.

Of course, even for those of us who have earned enough quarters to draw Social Security in addition to our pension, we CAN'T, by law. And the good Lord knows only how many of us have worked multiple jobs to support our families while we are denied drawing what we have EARNED!

I haven't mentioned the hit Gov. Abbott's proposed $1,000 teacher salary mandate which is a smokescreen and NO raise from the state.

If a district pays the state salary minimum they will have to find the money for the raises from where? Transportation? Curriculum? Maintenance?

If they pay over the state minimum, the teachers will not be getting that unfunded raise from their district, at all.

After educators have rallied, called and e-mailed, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is scrambling with what he calls pro-education proposals and a way to fund the $1,000 raise. Look carefully, listen well and dig deep because there is also a great deal of posturing.

There isn't enough space to discuss the impact of vouchers and small school funding and the exorbitant cost of testing (let's talk billions!)

During the rally I asked the protestors a series of questions that the vast majority raised their banners to acknowledge.

Let me share those questions the teachers answered yes to and you consider what it is like dealing daily with 22 to 150 students, depending on the level taught, along with state mandated testing, non-English speaking students, special needs students and more, while dealing with this list:

How many of you…

--extended your work day to tutor students on your own time before or after school?

--paid for your own training and/or attended workshops or classes on your own time so you could be a better teacher?

--have bought meals for your students? Supplies? Equipment?

--have paid for students to go on a school trip?

--have paid at least $500 to a $1,000 a year or more to outfit your classroom and supplement your curriculum?

--how many of you spent this amount every year you were in the classroom?

--handled the fallout of divorce on your students' emotional and academic performance?

--have helped students deal with the death of a parent, sibling or grandparent?

--have had terminally ill students in your classroom?

--continued to teach while fighting a serious illness?

--tried to intervene with students with drug and alcohol problems?

--dealt with the trauma of serious accidents and even student suicides?

The list is endless.

Let me say this clearly -- teachers change lives -- often at the expense of their own pocketbook, their health, their time and their families.

The least the state of Texas can do is give educators what they have EARNED and what they were promised when they became teachers.

If you believe this as well, please call and e-mail Gov. Abbott and your senators and representatives NOW and tell them you expect them to do what is right by educators and education.

It is the right thing to do. And, we need every single voice out there speaking with us and for us.

If I had it to do it all over again? I would still be a teacher. I just can't afford to be a retired teacher.

Suzanne Bardwell is retired Texas teacher and co-publisher of the Gladewater Mirror newspaper.

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