OPINION COLUMNS

Use your teacher voice and call Austin

By Suzanne Bardwell | Published Saturday, July 15, 2017

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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.

During the regular state legislative session, it felt as if education and educators had been targeted. So now teachers and other school employees – active and retired – are rising up like the proverbial “sleeping giant.”

Here is why:

Our pension is at risk of being changed when it’s the sixth healthiest in the nation. Why would politicians want to mess with something that works? Probably so they can raid the treasure chest.

True, our retiree health insurance was in deep trouble because of underfunding. The House came out with a plan to undergird the failing system, expecting the Senate to add their part. The Senate chose not to help. This means that as of Jan. 1, retirees will use one-third to one-half of their earned pension to pay for their health insurance.

During the fund’s 30-year history, the state funded only .5 percent of payroll instead of the current 1 percent. The active employees and retirees paid and are paying the rest.

The prescription plan has been cut, the benefits have been cut and yet we will pay one-third to one-half of our take home to pay for it.

For the average retiree who takes home a $2,000 monthly pension, it will eat their check, and even more heartbreaking is that 30 percent of public school retirees bring in $1,000 or less before insurance.

Of course, even for those of us who have earned enough quarters to draw Social Security in addition to our pension, by law we can’t. And the good Lord knows only how many of us have worked multiple jobs to support our families while we are denied drawing what we have earned!

To add insult to injury, Abbott 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 it. It’s a blatant attempt to strip associations of membership and public voice.

And I haven’t even mentioned the hit of Abbott’s proposed $1,000 teacher salary mandate, which is a smoke screen and not a raise from the state. If a district pays the state salary minimum, they will have to find the money for the raises from … where? Transportation? Curriculum? Maintenance?

If they pay over the state minimum, 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 there is also a great deal of posturing.

There isn’t enough space to discuss the impact of vouchers and small school funding and the exorbitant cost of testing (think billions!).

During a recent rally, I asked educators a series of questions. Read them below and consider what it’s like tackling those issues while teaching 22 to 150 students, all of which are at different levels, have varying capabilities and must pass state-mandated tests.

How many teachers:

  • extended their work day to tutor students on their own time before or after school?
  • paid for their own training and/or attended workshops or classes on their own time to be a better teacher?
  • have bought meals for their students? Supplies? Equipment?
  • have paid for students to go on a school trip?
  • have paid at least $500 to a $1,000 a year or more to outfit their classroom and supplement their curriculum?
  • spent this amount every year they were in the classroom?
  • handled the fallout of divorce on their students’ emotional and academic performance?
  • have helped students deal with the death of a parent, sibling or grandparent?
  • have had terminally ill students in their classroom?
  • continued to teach while fighting a serious illness?
  • tried to intervene with students with drug and alcohol problems?
  • dealt with the trauma of serious accidents and even student suicides?

The list is endless.

Let me be clear. Teachers change lives, often at the expense of their own pocketbooks, their health, their time and their 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 as well, call and email Abbott and your senators and representatives now. Tell them to do what is right by educators and education.

If I had it to do all over again, would I be a teacher? Most certainly.

I just can’t afford to be a retired teacher.

Suzanne Bardwell is a retired high school teacher of 33 years. She and her husband, Jim, own the Gladewater Mirror.

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