Monday, February 19, 2018

Bardwell: Remind lawmakers of their responsibilities to education

July 14, 2017 at 11:38 p.m.

Working and retired educators gather at the Gregg County Courthouse on Wednesday to advocate the teacher retirement system and school funding during the Use Your Teacher Voice rally.

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 legislative session it felt as if education and educators had been targeted. So teachers and other school employees, active and retired, are rising up like the proverbial sleeping giant. Here's 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 Gov. Greg Abbott named 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 House came out solidly with a plan to undergird the failing system, expecting the Senate to add its part. The Senate chose not to help. That means as of Jan. 1, retirees will have to use one-third to one-half of their earned pension to pay for health insurance.

The fact is that during the fund's 30-year history the state funded only one-half of 1 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, 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 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.

Retirees have not had a cost of living raise in 16 years. In our health insurance, the prescription plan has been cut, the benefits have been cut, and yet we will pay from one-third to one-half of our take home to pay for it.

I haven't mentioned Abbott's proposed $1,000 teacher salary mandate, which is a smokescreen and no raise from the state. If a district already pays the state salary minimum, it will have to find the money for the raises from … where? Transportation? Curriculum? Maintenance? If they pay more than the state minimum, the teachers will not be getting that unfunded raise from their district at all.

After educators have rallied, called and emailed, 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 he also brings a great deal of posturing.

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

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

I asked, how many of you:

Extended your workday 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?

Bought meals for your students? Supplies? Equipment?

Paid for students to go on a school trip?

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

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

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?

The list is endless.

Let me say this clearly: Teachers change lives, often at the expense of their own pocketbook, health, time and 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, please call and email Gov. Abbott and your senators and representatives and tell them you expect them to do what is right by educators and education.

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 a retired high school teacher of 33 years.



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