Texas teachers – are we or aren’t we?

Once again, most of the history behind the creation of ERS and TRS is on hold because of an email I received on the topic. I have received a number of emails from teachers across the state expressing desperate concerns about how they will afford going to the doctor now that our healthcare deductible went from $400 to $3000 and our premiums are rising without a CODA (Cost of Living Adjustment). I will share some of those with you, without using any names or cities, over the next few weeks. But today, I want to share with you another email I received last week.

That email came from Kate Johanns, director of marking and communications for Texas Public Employees Association (TPEA). It turns out that she wrote the communication I quoted in last week’s column. (The communication did not have her name on it or I would have credited her, individually, rather than writing that it was from TPEA. She did not have an issue with that, but I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due.) Kate asked me to explore the following points with you to be “fair” regarding our Summer Series topic: TRS vs. ERS. I am happy to address these points. (The italics represent her points.)
1. Public educators are employees of ISDs, not of the State of Texas.

Interesting point. During my 29 years of teaching, my contracts came from the district where I worked. My paychecks also came from the district where I worked. BUT…I had to follow the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) in teaching my courses. TEKS come from the Texas Education Agency. The State of Texas determines the Minimum Salary Schedule for classroom teachers, full-time librarians, full-time counselors, and full-time registered nurses in public school districts throughout the state. In 1936, voters approved an amendment to the Texas Constitution to establish a statewide teacher retirement system. The following year, the Texas Legislature established TRS. During the 2017 Legislative Session, the Texas Legislature increased our deductible from $400 to $3000. So if we are employees of ISDs, why does the State of Texas control our retirement system, the ISD’s Minimum Salary Schedule, and so much more and yet have vastly different compensation for teachers than for, I guess you would say, the “real” state employees?

I am not alone in my thinking. Take, as just one example, an October 20, 2013, op-ed piece that appeared in TB&P (Talk Business and Politics), a news website (talkbusiness.net) focused on business, politics, and culture in Arkansas. The headline reads, “Are teachers state employees?” The piece begins by asking readers to ask five people this question, suggesting that the responses will likely be split. It then goes on to ask similar questions to those I asked above, ending the piece with this: “Oh, yeah, and one last question. Isn’t it about time Arkansas lawmakers bite the bullet and combine ALL state employees under one – uniform – health coverage program? Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be cheaper on all of us taxpaying citizens in Arkansas? And wouldn’t it be better for ALL state employees to be on equal health insurance footing if they work for any phase of the state government?”

2. ISDs, unlike state agencies, have multiple revenue streams.

I need to do more research on this during the series, although I do not understand what this has to do with TRS, which is governed by the State of Texas, so much so that three of the nine TRS board members are direct appointees of the governor, two are appointed by the governor from candidates offered by the State Board of Education, and four are elected by active and retired employees of public school and higher education. The Texas Senate approves the members. But more on this later after I conduct interviews.

3. Most school districts have opted out of Social Security for their employees, while state employees pay into Social Security.

I am hoping to interview Kate during this series, so I will have to ask her how this one affects what has been done to TRS and the extreme discrepancies between TRS and ERS, too. I actually see not paying into Social Security as one more thing that works against us. I don’t know any teachers who have had a choice as to whether or not our districts paid into Social Security.

4. Many school districts have been able to more routinely provide salary increases to their employees than the State of Texas has.

On this one, I need to determine the best individuals to contact to discuss salary increases for teachers vs. (other) state employees. I will start with the Texas comptroller and go from there. I know that after 29 years of teaching, I only made $63,000. I will have to ask Kate how this one, too, matters when it comes to $3000 deductible vs. $0 deductible and $370-per-month-by-2021 premium vs. $0 premium.

5. TRS has a growing population of active employee participants, while the ERS active population has stayed stagnant if not shrunk.

I will have to contact officials from both ERS and TRS to get these figures. At first glance, I can see this two ways: If there are more active employees, more are paying into the system, which should be a benefit. However, if more people are in the system, it also costs more to insure them.

Kate ended with, “I suspect we’ll have to agree to disagree on the ultimate equity of the situation, but perhaps we can agree that the situations are apples and oranges—and that both TRS and ERS retirees are dedicated public servants who have served their fellow citizens with distinction and honor in exchange for modest salaries. Most ERS retirees are not legislators. Instead, they are the people who build and maintain our roads, investigate reports of child abuse, guard our prisons and more.”

I would say we will agree to disagree on the ultimate INequity of the situation and that she believes we are comparing apples to oranges while I say we are comparing apples to apples, though some of those apples are nurtured while others are discarded. I completely agree with Kate that both TRS and ERS retirees are dedicated public servants who have served our fellow citizens with distinction and honor in exchange for modest salaries. And while “most ERS retirees are not legislators,” Texas legislators ARE ERS retirees.

Finally, I would like to make it clear that I do not wish it upon ERS retirees to receive the inferior benefits those of us in TRS are receiving. Rather, I would like ERS and TRS retirees to have the same great benefits.

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.