We must remain focused and stay engaged.

Last week felt like a whirlwind that wouldn’t die down. Sunday, I drove to Austin to attend the Wear Red for Public Ed rally Monday, the day before the start of the Special Session of the 75th Legislature. Troy Reynolds, founder of Texans for Public Education (T4PE) and the director of curriculum and federal programs for Splendora ISD, organized the rally. When I interviewed him a few weeks ago, Troy told me the plan was for the rally to last 60-90 minutes and then for everyone in attendance to “storm the capitol,” visiting as many legislators as possible to express our support for public education and for Texas students and teachers.

I decided to “storm the capitol” in the morning so I could jump in my car right after the rally and make it back to the Valley before dark. I walked into the capitol shortly after 8 a.m., and by 1 p.m., I had visited the offices of approximately 40 legislators. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I only got to actually see and speak to three of them, Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), and Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez (D-Weslaco).

Rep. Hunter warmly welcomed me, telling me his mother is a retired teacher, “so I have a built-in lobbyist.” He then told me, “You let all those retired teachers know I’m behind them 100 percent!” He then had to step into a meeting.

I had a much more lengthy conversation with Rep. Flynn, as he and I debated whether or not teachers are state employees (him saying we’re not and me asking why the legislature controls what we teach, our certifications, our minimum salary schedule, our pensions, and our healthcare if we’re not) and the status of TRS-Care (him saying we have good insurance and me saying going from a $400 deductible to a $3000 deductible with no co-pay and very little prescription coverage is not something to celebrate). It sounds heated, but it was actually a healthy and productive conversation. Kelli Linza, Rep. Flynn’s legislative and committee director, provided me with a bit of constructive criticism. She said active and retired teachers need to come together with a clear and concise message as to what exactly it is we want as the messages they receive from teachers and teachers’ organizations are often conflicting.

My longest meeting was with Rep. Mando Martinez, who warmly welcomed me and my friends Linda and Pete Smith (former McAllen educators who now live and teach in the Houston area) into his office. Rep. Martinez, whose wife is a teacher, assured us he wholeheartedly supports restoring much of what we lost during the regular session.

Over 2500 people attended the rally that afternoon. Powerful speakers rallied the troops with messages of staying engaged and fighting relentlessly for public education, students, and teachers. Troy told the crowd we must remain focused and join T4PE in “block voting,” supporting candidates throughout the state who the organization is rating according to their votes on education issues.

More than one speaker talked about “The Power of 10,” telling 10 friends which candidates were rated favorably and asking them to tell 10 friends, who will tell 10 friends…

Louis Malfaro, president of Texas AFT, told the crowd, “Less than 40 percent of what is spent in schools is funded by the state.” (Later in the week, I read an op-ed by Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin). She wrote that when you remove charter schools from the funding equation, “the state’s share of funding for local school districts, which educate 94 percent of Texas students, drops to 32 percent, leaving property taxpayers to pick up the rest.” She also wrote, “The Texas Education Code explicitly says that public education is to be ‘substantially financed through state revenue sources.’ Most would agree that 32 percent is nowhere near substantial.”)

Several other notable speakers spoke at the rally. A small group of legislators took the time to attend the rally and to show their support for public education and for teachers, including two Valley legislators, Rep. Martinez and Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville).

At the rally and the next day, we learned of legislators who filed bills to restore some of the healthcare benefits Texas’ retired teachers lost during the regular session; however, none of that would matter unless Gov. Abbott called for TRS-Care to be addressed during the Special Session.

We received news last Thursday morning that the governor did just that. He added this item to the call for the Special Session: “Legislation to increase the average salary and benefits (including TRS-Care) of Texas teachers; and legislation to provide a more flexible and rewarding salary and benefit system for Texas teachers.”

Bills to watch during this Special Session:
1. HB 151 by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Terrell), the most sweeping of all of the bills filed, calls for the state to take $1 billion ($250 million per year over the next four years) from the Economic Stabilization Fund (aka Rainy Day Fund) to reduce the premiums and deductibles for retired public educators that were dramatically raised during the regular session. (Remember, it’s not just teachers. All retired public school employees are covered under TRS-Care.)

“I don’t want my retired teachers back home to think we failed them,” Gooden said. Gooden is also insisting that TRS keep the Texas Legislature more informed about the status of TRS-Care, as well as program drivers and medical trend data.

2. HB 76 by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) authorizes TRS to provide a COLA for all retirees who did not get one in 2013. That year, only retirees who retired on or before August 31, 2004, received a COLA, the first increase for TRS retirees since 2001.

3. HB 80 by Darby moves $100 million more into TRS-Care for this biennium.

4. July 13, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for additional funding for TRS-Care and a bonus for retirees, as well as lowering prescription costs for pre-65 retirees and the premium cost for dependents of retirees who are 65 and over.

5. HB 20 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) calls for $150 million to be taken out of the ESF to decrease premiums and deductibles for retirees under the age of 65. Ashby said he heard from “thousands of teachers across Texas.”

It’s obvious that they are hearing us in Austin; however, in order to use ESF monies, a two-thirds majority in both chambers must vote to approve. This is no time to sit back and relax. We must stay focused and stay engaged and heed the “calls to action” we are receiving from the Texas Retired Teachers Association as we continue to fight to have benefits much closer to those received by retirees in ERS.

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.