Numbers of veteran teachers putting pressure on school budgets

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(Host) As Town Meeting Day approaches, school budgets will come under the microscope as communities grapple with rising health insurance, heating and special education costs.

And, as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, an unusually high proportion of veteran teachers – those at the top end of the pay scale – is also pushing many school budgets up.

(Keck) Montpelier High School Principal Peter Evans says 10 to 15 years ago, teachers didn’t work as long as they do now.

(Evans) "You know, it seemed like 25 or 30 years was the magic number. And when teachers got to that point they were looking to retire and in some cases take on a second career and shift into some other avocation that they had."

(Keck) But Evans says today, teachers are feeling pressured to work as long as possible.

When a teacher retires, the state teacher’s retirement plan provides 80% of health care benefits for the retired teacher – spouses are not included.

Because buying extra coverage out of pocket can cost $500 to $600 a month, many teachers can’t afford to retire.

(Evans) "I have five teachers into their 40th year of teaching. I have probably eight or nine in their 30-plus years of teaching. And when they stop and analyze the amount of money they’re going to receive through retirement and then consider the cost of health insurance on top of that or consider taking health insurance and not taking as much of their teachers’ retirement it’s a big challenge making that decision."

(Keck) The Montpelier principal says the situation has definitely affected his school budget, since teachers at the top of the pay scale earn about twice that of a new teacher. He says this year they had to make some significant cuts, moving six teachers from full to part-time status.

(Evans) "And when you look at the teachers who were impacted, they’re teachers at the lowest end of the seniority level. And because more teachers are staying in and working longer, some of the teachers at the lowest end of the seniority level have 15- 20 years of experience.”

(Keck) According to the Vermont NEA – the state’s largest teachers union – the average age of public school teachers in Vermont is in the upper 40s. So they expect to see concerns over health care growing.

And it’s not just health care costs that are keeping teachers in the classroom longer than they might choose. Many have seen their retirement investments take a nose dive thanks to recent stock market losses.

Frank Perotti, superintendent of schools in Springfield, says the situation is skewing faculty budgets, as well as faculty dynamics.

(Perotti) "You hope to have a nice mix with some nice new young teachers coming in with energy and up to date in all of the theory. And also you hope to have seasoned teachers who make wonderful mentors, have great experience and are able to share their skills and knowledge with the younger folks."

(Keck) While they have an abundance of excellent, veteran teachers, Perotti says they don’t have the new energy and ideas coming in.

State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding oversees Vermont’s pensions and health care programs for state employees, teachers and municipal workers.

He understands the concern about health care costs, but says Vermont teachers do have a good retirement package.

(Spaulding) "You could get out of college and start teaching at the age of 22 and leave at 32 and go to work at Microsoft or someplace on the West Coast – and when you get to be retirement age, you’re now a vested member in the system, you have 10 years of service, you could say, `I’m ready for my 80% now.’ And that’s a heck of a benefit."

(Keck) For years, teachers have been asking for coverage that would include their spouse.

But Spaulding says the state is already struggling to pay the nearly $16 million a year to provide benefits to retired teachers.

Adding more coverage, is possible, he says, but only for future teachers – and only if they’d be willing to make concessions of their own. For instance paying in more to the system over time or requiring teachers to work for 15 or 20 years before they qualify for benefits.

(Spaulding) "The bottom line is if we’re going to retain a decent level of benefits for teachers in the future, we’re going to have to make sure that what we are offering in terms of a benefit is appropriate and fair to both those who are earning the benefit and those who are paying for the benefit. And that we can make the argument that this is sustainable, affordable over the long run. Otherwise, my fear is that what will happen in the public domain is what we saw happen in the private sector – where in the private sector they’re getting out of pensions and retiree health insurance altogether."

(Keck) And that’s something Spaulding says he doesn’t want to happen.

The Vermont NEA says this isn’t just an issue concerning teachers in Vermont. They say it’s one more reason why the nation’s health care system needs an overhaul.

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck

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