Students and Teachers should be our priority: PERS reform now

As Democrats, and public school supporters, we need to pressure our elected leaders to start putting students and teachers before monied campaign donors. Our schools are suffering. We need PERS reform NOW.

Oregonians have been reminded in TV ad campaigns that two highly paid retired Oregon government employees are taking home obscene amounts of money — $55,000 and $76,000 per month. Those egregious examples of Oregon government employee payouts are symbolic that taxpayers are funding overly generous PERS benefits that divert money from public school classrooms. Diverting that money has led to Oregon having the lowest instruction time and graduation rates in the nation. Even though the education budget is the highest its ever been, school districts are cutting teachers and programs in order to pay their PERS obligations.

Governor Brown has recently talked about improving schools and increasing instruction time, but did not mention funding. Furthermore, she hasn’t taken the lead to enact common sense reforms to save our schools and our teachers’ jobs. Why hasn’t she acted? Is it that she is following the national playbook of putting re-election before the welfare of our citizens and our children? Is she afraid of upsetting some of her largest campaign contributors — the government employee unions who oppose pension reform?

The Oregonian reported that Oregon is the only state where state government employees are not required to contribute to their pensions. State law formerly required them to contribute to their pensions, but that law changed 15 years ago so state employees now enjoy a free-money pension.

Today, Oregon government employees get two retirement accounts: one is the free-money pension and the other is a 401K-like plan (the IAP) to which employees are required to contribute 6% of their salary. According to PERS’ own data, most government entities pay this 6% for their employees.

Governor Brown says PERS reform hurts teachers. That’s silly talk. Without PERS reform, teachers are being cut as are their education programs and supports, and class sizes are growing. Ignoring this problem is what hurts teachers. There are common sense reforms that should be implemented. Many studies, including one from Portland’s City Club, offer a variety of suggestions that collectively could pay for improved teacher salaries and hire more teachers. Brown, and too many other status quo defenders, are reliant financially on government employee unions who oppose pension reform. For lawmakers genuinely interested in solving problems instead of just getting re-elected, here is one simple idea to help stop the bleed:

Require Oregon government employees to contribute to their pensions like other government employees in America.

Even if government employees contribute only 6% of their salary to their own pensions, that would be about $600 million a year back to schools, local governments and state services. For reference, the average annual cost to employ a teacher is $100,000. That’s a lot of teachers.

This is not rocket science. Until Governor Brown dares to upset some of her largest donors, our teachers and kids will continue to pay the price for outlandish government pensions.

Kim Sordyl

Sordyl is a Portland Public Schools parent, education advocate, employment law attorney, and lifelong Democrat from Flint, Michigan.