Bellevue superintendent says teachers not to blame for pension crisis, will work for compromise

09/06/2017 02:02 PM

BELLEVUE – Bellevue Independent Schools Superintendent Robb Smith didn’t expect a lot of feedback when he posted a letter on social media last week to Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, saying that teachers are not to blame for the current pension crisis.

In the letter, Smith wrote, “There are no absolutes dealing with humans, but I can confidently say 99 percent of the people with whom I have worked, and there are hundreds, are not the greed-fueled personalities you have referenced in your speeches. The professional in our schools are altruistic in motivation and pure in practice. To characterize them as anything else is irresponsible and unjust. To say anything but compassionate and dedicated is to distort the truth.”

Smith estimates that he’s gotten over 70,000 likes on Facebook and is appreciative that so many took the time to acknowledge his letter.

Last week, members of the Public Pension Oversight Board heard findings and recommendations from an audit performed by the PFM Group, and some of the recommendations included moving new teachers to a 401 (k) style savings plan as well as social security, and raising the retirement age of teachers to age 65 instead of the current requirement of 27 years of service.

Smith is fearful that rising the retirement age could force many teachers, who already have, or are close to having their 27 years in, to retire which could cause a swell of teachers leaving at once.

“If something like that were to pass I think you’d see an exodus of those eligible to retire and I would hate to see that because in the end, students lose in that scenario,” Smith said. “When you are having veteran teachers removed from the classroom and replaced with novice teachers, the quality is going to go down.”

Smith says that one consideration when evaluating the teaching profession is the fact that additional education is required after teachers begin their careers at their own expense.

“The system that I entered required a Master’s degree within 10 years,” Smith said. “Those aren’t cheap.”

Smith acknowledges that most education retirees get more money back than they’ve paid into the system and says that he believes teachers would be agreeable to a compromise, but not necessarily a total gutting of the current KTRS.

“We don’t get what we pay in, we get much more and I understand that, the math has to work,” Smith said. “As I wrote in the letter, I don’t think that we’re not willing to give up something, we realize that there’s a deficit here, but how much can you ask of people who started 20 or 25 years ago.”

Smith is fearful that if benefits are cut and the retirement age is moved to 65 that many may not choose to enter the profession.

“I think you will see a reduction in students at the college level entering into education,” Smith said.

With the potential changes to the retirement system, one possibility could be to increase teachers’ salaries but Smith said that most, if not all districts in the state, could never afford to do that.

“Staffing is always going to be your greatest expense and we are already in the 75 to 80 percent range of our budget for salaries,” Smith said. “Increasing that is just going to take operational monies away and I don’t know that districts, especially small ones, can survive.”

Smith is hopeful that the upcoming special session will result in a bipartisan effort to find a solution.

“I’m really impressed with the Speaker and some of the folks that I’ve listened to from both sides saying that this has to be fixed and that we shouldn’t get too excited about this report that came out,” Smith said. “We’re depending on these guys.”


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