Teachers protest Vt. pension plan

Teachers gather outside West Rutland School on Tuesday to demonstrate against the state’s proposed pension plan.

About a dozen teachers gathered outside West Rutland School on Tuesday afternoon to voice their opposition to proposed changes to the state’s pension system.

Holding signs and waving to passing motorists, the event was one of many such demonstrations being organized around the state this week. In Rutland County, similar events took place in Proctor and Poultney Tuesday.

Last week, the House Government Operations Committee unveiled an initial proposal that would overhaul the state teacher and employee retirement systems.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce launched the pension conversation in January when she called for deep cuts to the system in order to maintain long-term sustainability. At the time, she projected almost $3 billion in unfunded liability.

Factors precipitating the shortfall include historic underfunding, lower than anticipated investment returns, changes to demographic assumptions and revised economic assumptions.

The teacher pension system currently has more than 9,800 active members drawing an average of $1,704 in monthly benefits.

The proposal increases assets to the system by increasing base employee contribution rates, and reduces long-term liabilities by applying the cost-of-living adjustment to only the first $24,000 of a retirement benefit and not until a retiree reaches age 67 (or 60 for law enforcement).

In addition, the average final compensation would be calculated using the seven highest consecutive years of salary as opposed to the current three years, resulting in a reduction of the average benefit.

Furthermore, the retirement age would be modified with most employees qualifying at the Social Security retirement age of either 66 or 67.

Finally, employees would be required to work 10 years to qualify for benefits instead of five.

All together, the cumulative cost to school and state employees under the proposal would be about $500 million.

Current retirees and those within five years of retirement eligibility would not be affected.

For their part, lawmakers have offered to pony up a one-time contribution of $150 million.

Before becoming law, the proposal must clear the House and Senate and win the approval of Gov. Phil Scott.

Since its release, the pension plan has been roundly rejected by educators and state employees.

Workers who would be affected have been making their voices heard, including at two public hearings held online on Friday and Monday.

April Morse, president of the Greater Rutland County Education Association and a first-grade teacher at West Rutland School, helped organized the Tuesday demonstration.

“We're just trying to raise awareness,” she said. “There's a lot of people out there that don't even realize that this is happening, and this will affect taxpayers as well as the teachers and state employees.”

Another demonstrator, Erin Therrien, teaches first grade at WRS. Coming from a family of educators, she said the state is disrespecting teachers by raising the retirement age.

“I am 17 years in. If this happens, I have to work until I'm 46 years in. It’s not right for these kids. It's not right for Vermonters,” she said. “We want to do our job and not worry about our pensions at the same time.”

Kayla Poljacik, a second-grade teacher at WRS, testified at Monday’s hearing.

“After hearing hundreds of teachers and other state employees express how this would affect them, I just can't imagine they would go through with this plan,” she said Tuesday.

Morse, who watched all four hours of testimony, said she felt like it was “falling upon deaf ears” and that legislators have already made up their minds.

She said it’s unfair to ask teachers, who have been contributing to their pensions all along through their payroll checks, to compensate for what she argued is the state’s “mismanagement of funds.”

“None of us go into (teaching) for the money,” she said. “However, the benefits have always been really good. Within the last few years, we've lost our wonderful health care — our health care payments have gone up and our benefits have gone down — and now they're looking at gutting our pension. That's not OK.”

Morse pointed to neighboring states where salary, benefits and pensions are better.

“Anyone would be crazy to come to the state of Vermont and begin teaching. We have quite a few brand-new teachers that have only been teaching for a few years that are looking at leaving the state after this year if this passes,” she said. “We're already in a teacher shortage as it is. This will just basically be the nail in the coffin.”

Marisa Kiefaber is one such teacher.

Kiefaber, who teaches fifth grade at Rutland Town School and has worked in the state for only five years, agrees the state is in danger of losing educators if the proposal passes in its current state.

“I have a lot of young educator friends, and we were actually talking yesterday about how we're young enough that, if it's not worth staying in education for the retirement benefits, then we have time to think about another career path,” she said Tuesday morning.

Kiefaber said she understands the challenge the state is facing but, like Morse, does not think it’s right for teachers and state workers to make up the difference.

“This is another way for the state and the system of education to communicate to educators that we aren't valued. And that hurts, especially this year,” she said.

Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, voiced his organization’s opposition to the proposal in a Monday statement, calling the burdens it places on educators “detrimental, demoralizing and unfair.”

“The very serious problems arising from the unfunded liabilities — fiscal, operational and political — should not be laid at the feet of the dedicated educators who have completely met their obligations as contributors to the (Vermont State Teachers Retirement System) every step of the way,” he stated.

The Vermont-NEA, which represents more than 13,000 school workers across the state, has been vocal in its disapproval of the proposal.

Don Tinney, union president, called it a “slap in the face” after a year in which educators have worked hard to keep schools functioning during the pandemic.

He said the proposal threatens the profession of teaching because it will essentially gut any incentive for educators to stay in Vermont long term. He predicted that younger teachers will leave the state and those close to retirement will do so earlier than expected.

Tinney argued that instead of putting the burden on teachers, the state should have “the wealthiest Vermonters pay their fair share.”

House Progressives attempted to do just that with a last-minute amendment to this year’s miscellaneous tax bill by proposing the addition of a 3% surcharge on Vermonters earning more than $500,000. The amendment failed resoundingly 125-21.

Also, Tinney framed the issue as one of gender equity, pointing out that three quarters of teachers in Vermont are women.

“Why would you put the financial security of working-class women at risk for the sake of protecting millionaires?” he asked.

Tinney encouraged educators to continue to stay engaged with lawmakers so they will understand what’s at stake, adding that he believes the Legislature will ultimately “do the right thing.”

During the weekend, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray also came out in support of workers. Like Tinney, she noted that the proposal would disproportionately affect women.

“I encourage amendments to the proposal that center the needs and experiences of our teachers and state employees in the process as well as the value we place on their service,” she stated. “I also encourage consideration of the disparate impact of the proposal on the short-term and long-term economic well-being of Vermont women.”

The governor addressed the proposal at his Tuesday news briefing, calling it a “concept” that has yet to go through any committees or be voted on.

He credited House lawmakers for tackling the problem.

“We've seen the warning signs for decades and have ignored them. So now it's time to do something,” he said. “Now, I’m sure it'll have a lot of twists and turns along the way, but we need to get something accomplished, so I'm supportive of their efforts.”

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, acknowledged that this is a difficult conversation, but said she and the Government Operations committee are listening to the concerns being raised by teachers and state employees.

“We put these ideas forward for Vermonters to react to, and created the space in committee to present alternative proposals or possible solutions,” she wrote in a Tuesday email. “Our work continues to be focused on working together to find solutions. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity with the millions of dollars we have pulled together, but unfortunately, we know that this is not enough.”

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