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Teachers concerned about state cuts

Perdue’s suggested policy change has retired educators worried about their pensions

POSTED: November 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.
JESSICA JORDAN /The Times

Dora Spiva, 103, of Blairsville taught mathematics and Latin in Union County for 40 years. She retired in 1970 and is concerned about possible changes to the cost of living adjustments to payments she gets from the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia. Spiva said she has depended on the cost of living adjustments to her retirement payments since her husband died in 1985.

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They're well-versed in the sonnets of Shakespeare. They can explain Quantum physics to a room full of surly teenagers. And they stay after school to tutor struggling calculus students.

Georgia's teachers often give it their all in the classroom, and receive comparatively little in return. While many have the capacity to become medical doctors or lawyers, they've instead chosen to invest in children, banking on a better future for us all and security in their golden years.

The Teachers Retirement System of Georgia ranks among the best retirement programs in the nation, with its state-guaranteed pension, a defined benefit plan and a 1.5 percent semiannual cost of living raise.

Since 1969, the state's teachers have invested 5 to 6 percent of their salary each month in the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia to fund their pensions and 1.5 percent cost of living adjustments on their pensions, or COLAs, twice a year.

Despite a $9 billion loss in the value of the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia since June 30, state analysts say the system remains "actuarially sound," holding strong at $41.6 billion, which is enough to finance 94 percent of all system retirees' benefits as of July, according to Bill Sloan, executive director of the Georgia Retired Educators Association.

At the suggestion of Gov. Sonny Perdue, the Teachers Retirement System board approved at its Sept. 24 meeting changing the system's COLA policy language to allow the board to vote annually on the amount of the COLA, up to 1.5 percent. The motion passed with a 4-3 vote. Three of the 10 board members were absent.

If the board approves the policy change in the final vote at its upcoming Nov. 19 board meeting, COLA payments doled out to retired teachers could range from nothing to 1.5 percent. Given in January and again in July, the COLA amount would be set by the board each May if the policy language is changed.

The policy change would affect about 79,000 presently retired teachers and would potentially affect the roughly 225,000 public teachers and administrators now working in Georgia, Sloan said.

Jeff Ezell, executive director of the Teachers Retirement Association, said the average retired teacher's monthly COLA is $42. According to the system's November payroll, Ezell said the average age of all the system's retirees is 68 and their average monthly benefit is $2,823, amounting to a an average annual benefit of $33,876.

He said the proposed change would modify the wording of the system's policy stating that it "will" pay retirees a 1.5 percent COLA every six months to "may" pay retirees up to a 1.5 percent COLA every six months.

Despite the stock market's recent nose dive, the retirement system is considered quite solvent, leaving retired teachers stumped as to why the governor is asking the system's board to amend system policy to a point where their prepaid COLAs could be reduced.

Bert Brantley, spokesman for the governor's office, said the governor suggested the Teachers Retirement System board change its automatic COLA policy to provide the board with a "financial management tool."

"This is not driven by trying to deal with the current budget situation," Brantley said of the state's revenue shortfall.

Brantley said the governor asked the board to consider changing the system's defined policy to align its COLA policy with that of other state retirement systems, such as the Employees Retirement System established for state employees. Brantley said the policy change would allow the board to decrease or opt out of distributing the COLAs to manage the system responsibly for retirees' base pensions and for future retirees' pensions.

"Nobody's saying anything about eliminating the COLAs," he said.

The Teachers Retirement System has an annual payroll of about $2.4 billion a year, said Teachers Retirement System of Georgia board member Ralph Steuer. Currently, public educators pay 5 percent of their salary into the retirement system, and the employer, the state and the local government, share the 9.28 percent matching rate. The state carries 56 percent of that match, while local governments fund the remainder. According to Ezell, the employee rate will be raised to 5.25 percent and the employer rate will be raised to 9.74 percent on July 1.

Sloan leads the Gainesville-based Georgia Retired Educators Association, just one of four statewide educators' groups lobbying against the retirement system policy change. The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the Georgia Association of Educators and the Flowery Branch-based Georgia Association of Educational Leaders also have banded against the pending policy change.

"The reason we're fighting it is we've been getting it for 39 years and we've been paying our money in to get it," Sloan said. "The whole key is we paid extra to get that. When I was 22 teaching at South Hall High School ... I paid extra so I'd get paid more when I retired."

Sloan said if the board approves the policy change on Nov. 19, lawsuits against the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia are likely to follow.

David Massey, a former associate superintendent for Hall County schools, began working as an English teacher in the fall of 1960 and retired in 2003. He said he and other educators have been counting on the COLA to help their pensions keep up with inflation and the rising cost of gas, taxes, food and particularly health care.

But Massey said he's most concerned about the educators who retired before Georgia teachers were awarded generous pay raises for four consecutive years under former Gov. Zell Miller's administration, making Georgia teachers the highest paid in the Southeast. In 1960, for example, Massey said he recalls his starting salary as a teacher was $3,100.

"It's the folks who retired who never made much that are going to be hit hard," Massey said.
Folks like 103-year-old Dora Spiva.

Spiva, a Blairsville resident, began teaching high school Latin and mathematics in Union County in 1930, 13 years before the Teacher Retirement System of Georgia was established. She retired in 1970 from her position as principal at Young Cane Elementary School.

Under the retirement system's policy, Spiva said she receives enough from her pension fund each year but has relied heavily on her COLA to allow her to maintain a healthy standard of living, even more so after her husband died in 1985.

While Spiva is fortunate to draw funds annually from other sources of income, such as her family farm near Blairsville, she said a COLA cut would be "terrible" for retired teachers, many of whom are now single and depend solely on their teachers retirement pensions.

"I didn't even know about that," she said of the pending policy change. "I depend on (the COLA) a lot. I depend on it for eating and house bills and for gas for my car. I depended on that because I knew it was coming each year."

Margaret McCall, 53, is an eighth-grade gifted math and science teacher at West Hall Middle School. She's been working in Hall County schools for 30 years and said she hopes to retire within the next five years. McCall said she's "disappointed" with the governor's office and "scared" about the potential policy change's effect on her COLA.

"Teachers are scared their salaries will not keep up with inflation, and I'm not counting on Social Security," she said..

Steuer said as a board member who is calling the shots on Nov. 19, he feels the proposed policy amendment presents a moral dilemma. He said he plans to vote against the COLA policy change.

"For the people who've worked their whole life ... it's like pulling the rug out from under these people," he said.

He said the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia has already received more than 16,000 letters and e-mails from educators who are pleading for the board to keep their COLAs intact.

"Personally, I don't think this is going to pass," Steuer said. "But I'm sure there's going to be some lobbying going on from the governor's office, and that could cause somebody to flip."



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