The state teachers union is rejecting most of the final recommendations of the special pension commission, particularly its proposal to shift half the funding of pensions onto county school boards or governments. In a strong letter to the governor and legislative leaders, the union also wants county governments to be forced to fully fund school budgets and to give them authority to raise more taxes or disregard local tax caps.
The teachers’ union has taken the lead role in the fight against cuts in state pension benefits, an understandable position, since teachers have more at stake.
The Maryland State Education Association has more members than any other union in the fight. Its members make more money on average than other government workers. And because of higher pay, they get higher pension benefits, according to figures from the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System.
The House of Delegates and Maryland Senate this past week have both voted to cut pension benefits for state teachers and employees as the legislators raised contribution rates and retirement ages, ostensibly to cure a massive $18 billion underfunding of the pension system.
But millions of the savings from the reduced benefits are not going to shore up the pension plans at all, but will instead funnel money into the operating budget. This prospect has drawn fire from liberal and conservative lawmakers and the teachers union, as well as strong objections from the head of the retirement system.
The state teachers union has proposed revised pension changes as an alternative to the retirement shifts proposed by the House Appropriations Committee in the budget plan that the House of Delegates tentatively approved Wednesday night. The MSEA plan combines higher employee contributions and lower cost-of-living adjustments.
Despite the state’s continuing problems balancing its budget, education advocates – from State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick to community leaders – pleaded with members of a Senate budget subcommittee on Friday not to cut funds from schools.
Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed a total of $6.4 billion for public school education in his fiscal year 2012 budget, a figure he described as “level funding.” But the total amount winds up being 4.6% less than schools are receiving in the current fiscal year, due to a loss of federal stimulus dollars.
The executive director of the state teachers’ union said the process being used by the commission considering changes to state pensions was “offensive,” rushed, and lacked both details and consultation with affected employees.
“The whole discussion has been how are we going to cut costs,” David Helfman, executive director of the Maryland State Education Association, told reporters Thursday at a briefing. “There’s no indication that it’s being done in good faith.”
The federal education department gave Maryland a $250 million grant Tuesday to implement school reforms designed to improve the performance of both students and teachers.
But a testy exchange between school superintendents and representatives of the teachers union on Saturday showed that actually putting the changes in place may be contentious and difficult to achieve, particularly new standards for evaluating teachers.