Opinion: State retirement system not keeping promise to teachers

As schools start to reopen, parents are busy with a long list of things to help their kids get ready. The only people who might be busier are teachers, many of whom must prepare their own children while also readying bulletin boards, lesson plans and other activities for their new students.

It’s a lot of work but that’s what teachers do. All too often, they’re underpaid, overworked and underappreciated. Yet they make a real difference in countless lives.

I was a teacher, coach and administrator for 30 years, the last 19 at Sycamore Schools. I chose that career because I genuinely cared about educating children and investing in the next generation. Coming out of college, I was willing to have a lower salary than many of the people I graduated with because I was promised high-quality benefits like a safe and secure retirement.

State Teachers Retirement System:$9.6M in bonus pay awarded after Ohio teachers pension system lost $3B

Now, as a retiree, I’ve come to realize that difficult economic times like what we’re seeing now fall harder on retired teachers. The benefits we were promised don’t go as far, as inflation and cost of living have drained the value of our checks.

In Ohio, we count on the State Teachers Retirement System staff to invest the money that teachers and taxpayers gave them in a prudent and responsible fashion. Yet STRS, which has a gold-plated staff who hire diamond-encrusted consultants, has a tin ear regarding the concerns of retired teachers like me. 

Each year for the past decade, STRS cut teacher benefits while rewarding themselves with shameless pay raises and sham bonuses. Retired teachers on a fixed income get less while well-to-do STRS bureaucrats pay themselves more.

As a result, the same Ohio teachers who are preparing for a new school year are being forced to pay more from their paychecks and will have to work years longer. And their older counterparts − folks like me − lose promised cost-of-living increases while struggling with record inflation that eats into household budgets. 

But you can help. The people on the STRS Board must be held accountable, and they’ll listen if the public makes their concerns known. You can tell STRS Board members that as inflation runs wild, cutting back on cost-of-living adjustments for retirees is wrong. It’s hurtful. And it ought to stop.

But it’s high living and good times for STRS staff. Leaders of this retirement system act as though the beneficiaries can be ignored. They sneer at us. The staff act as if they don’t answer to anyone. They get negative press coverage, shrug, and then continue to abuse the trust placed in them. Anyone who dares speak up is labeled a dissident or troublemaker.

This is no way to treat retired teachers − or anyone, for that matter.

When teachers fail to meet expectations, they’re fired. When our schools fail to make the grade, changes are made. At STRS, incompetence is rewarded with massive raises and bonuses. STRS staff have the embarrassing distinction as the highest compensated staff in the nation even as they fail to keep the promises made to our teachers.

How bad is it? Ohio’s active and retired teachers finally said, “enough is enough” this past May and voted overwhelmingly to oust three incumbent members on the STRS Board who refused to reign in years of abuse in favor of reform challengers. Teachers made their voices heard and delivered a clear mandate for immediate change. But pension staff still aren’t listening.

In June, the outgoing board rushed through the staff’s request for another pay raise of six percent and just voted on Aug. 18 to approve record-high bonuses approaching $10 million before the new board can take over. 

Teachers who are actually educating our kids didn’t get that kind of raise this year, and they certainly won’t get six-figure bonuses.

What’s more tone-deaf than asking teachers to sacrifice more while lining your own pockets with salary increases and egregious bonuses?

Thankfully, change is coming.

At the upcoming September board meeting, a newly composed board will be sworn in resulting in a new majority committed to reform. These board members must take steps to rebuild trust with teachers by ensuring transparency, reviewing staff compensation policies, and completing a top-to-bottom review of investment strategies and hidden investment fees paid to Wall Street.

Now is the time. Time for teachers and retired teachers on the board to break out the dry erase board and go back to school with pension system staff about what’s important − teacher benefits; who’s important − teachers, not pension system staff; and why they do what they do − to keep the promises made to teachers.

Jim Stoll retired as a teacher and athletic director from Sycamore Schools in Hamilton County with 30 years of service.

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