Small pensions push teachers out

Inadequate retirement benefits force more to leave Md., industry

lawmakers lobbying for improvements

March 05, 2006|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Aimee Kilgore never imagined she would get rich as an elementary school teacher, but she was startled when she saw calculations of what her pension income would be if she spends 30 years in the Carroll County school system.

"It's at least 50 percent less than what I think I would need to live comfortably in retirement," said Kilgore, 28, who has taught fifth grade for seven years at Taneytown Elementary. Seeing the calculation "was eye-opening."

Robert Ridgely, who taught third grade at Manchester Elementary for five years, said he left the profession last fall in part because of his worries that he would be unable to retire on a teacher's pension. He accepted a job last fall with the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn.

"I realized that [teaching] was what I wanted to do, but I couldn't afford to raise a family on it," said Ridgely, 28, who decided to become a teacher when he was in third grade at Freedom Elementary in Sykesville. His wife, Amanda, 26, teaches fourth-graders at Sandymount Elementary in Finksburg.

"Why work so long, so hard, doing something I love [only] to have to work in retirement?" Ridgely said.

The concerns expressed by Kilgore and the Ridgelys illustrate the motivation behind the most recent push to improve teachers' pensions in Maryland.

Because state lawmakers - through the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act - last year mandated pension legislation for educators and state employees be introduced during this year's General Assembly session, teachers see this as their best opportunity to win the first substantive pension reforms since 1998.

However, with the Assembly about halfway through session, legislation has yet to be introduced.

"To be at the halfway point and having nothing presented for us to consider is very frustrating," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, who represents South Carroll. "This is very late in the process to be dealing with something that is universally agreed to be an important issue."

Krebs said that a task force was created last year to work on the pension issue, and she had expected legislation early in this year's session.

Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell, whose District 5A includes Westminster, North Carroll and Finksburg, said she has been assured by a member of the House Pension Committee that a bill will be coming this session.

To help push the effort along, teachers and union leaders are waging a lobbying campaign to persuade legislators to make the changes necessary to attract and retain qualified teachers who can accept jobs in neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, that offer healthier pension packages.

"We believe it needs to be done this year," said Barry D. Potts, president of the Carroll County Education Association, which represents about 2,100 teachers. "The sooner we're competitive [with neighboring states], the less people will leave the state."

A retired school employee in Pennsylvania earns a pension benefit equal to 75 percent of his or her average final salary, free of state taxes, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association. By comparison, MSTA officials say, Maryland school employees earn 38 percent of their average final salary, minus state taxes - the worst plan in the nation.

MSTA's proposed legislation would raise pension income to 60 percent of a school employee's average final salary.

"That would put Maryland in a competitive position," said Patricia A. Foerster, MSTA president. "It would put us in approximately the middle of the pack" when compared with other states.

Krebs and Shewell have been the most vocal Carroll delegates in support of pension reform, but both stress that teachers are not comparing apples to apples when they compare themselves to educators in Pennsylvania.

"In Pennsylvania, teachers pay 7.5 percent toward their pensions. Maryland teachers are paying 2 percent," said Krebs, who added that she is hearing from teachers willing to contribute more.

"The tone of the letters we're getting from teachers is that they want to do more and they want us to do more," said Krebs, who served on the Carroll County school board from 1998 to 2002. "It's a question of how much and what will it take to get where they want to be."

Shewell said she is particularly concerned about a teacher shortage if Maryland is unable to offer better incentives. She said some people argue that teachers aren't entitled to pensions that are any better than what workers earn in private industry. But, she said, private industry often pays a lot more than teaching.

"Teachers don't always make the greatest salaries," said Shewell, who had a brief stint as an elementary school teacher in Baltimore County and whose husband taught for 32 years in Carroll County. "We're certainly going to need better incentives to retain and attract good teachers."

Foerster agreed that a better pension benefit is critical to stemming teacher losses.

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