PERS Reform: Budget Woes Are Hurting Teachers and Students
In our last post, we discussed how Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) has been the subject of ongoing criticism and attempts at reform. Specifically, we explored one of the major liabilities of the system – the Money Match pension formula that has significantly raised pension costs for government employers in the state of Oregon.
While the faults of the system affects all manner of public employees – including police officers and social workers – nowhere have the effects of PERS’s brokenness been more evident than in Oregon’s public schools. In this post, we will examine the effects of the system on one group of key players in this situation: current public school teachers across Oregon.
How PERS is Affecting School Districts
As The Oregonian informs us, public schools in Oregon are facing a crisis in the 2013-2015 budget cycle. That crisis, whose effects are already being felt in schools, stems from several different factors, including the rising costs of medical benefits and step raises. However, almost all parties agree that PERS’s overwhelmingly high pension costs are a major contributing factor to the fact that money is tight in Oregon’s public schools.
The budget problem has manifested itself in the usual ways: fewer teachers, larger classrooms, and reduced class days. In addition, teachers are given no cost-of-living adjustments to their annual salaries, and furloughs are cutting into their already low base pay. Add to these issues the constant worry about whether they might be laid off, and how their pensions will be affected down the line, and we have a situation in which teachers whose are not planning on retiring anytime soon are finding it hard to provide the type of quality education that they want to provide – and that their students deserve.
Budget Problems Are Driving Teachers out of Teaching
One such educator, Wendy Miller, faced this problem as a new teacher at Liberty High School in Hillsboro. Facing stiff competition in the Oregon market from so-called “double dippers” – teachers who collect their pensions from PERS while simultaneously teaching part-time – Miller felt lucky to have been hired as a ninth grade teacher in the first place. Despite the low salary, she was happy to be working on bridging the achievement gap for minority students; with grant funding and the district’s support, she felt that she really was able to make a difference. However, when the funding stopped, Miller was left “beyond exhausted” by the fight to help minority students without much support. The lack of adequate pay – despite proof that she was an effective teacher – became an even larger problem, as she was forced into foreclosure on her condominium. After four years, Miller left teaching for a non-profit job in which her promised pension is less generous, but where her pay and benefits package makes her life more livable.
Miller notes that PERS’s rising costs play a large role in the school district’s financial problems, which ultimately led to her leaving teaching. However, like many teachers (including the retired and almost-retired teachers we will discuss in our next post), she also points to Oregon’s broken tax system and the failure of the business community to take on its fair share as contributing factors. She believes that, rather than focusing solely on PERS, it would be more fair to address all three issues in order to provide more money to schools.
Oregon teachers should not be forced into a “martyrdom competition,” as Miller puts it, in order to provide a solid education to their students. While PERS reforms, as well as other tax reforms, most directly affect the pension rights of teachers and other public employees, all Oregonians would be well-advised to pay attention to the ongoing debate. The results will affect a variety of public services, not the least of which is public education.
If you are a teacher who believes that your school district has treated you unfairly, please contact one of our attorneys to help you evaluate your claim.