February 5, 2012

Occupy Your School District

I am turning 60 this summer.  I have no plans to retire for a number of reasons.  I love my job because it is not a job; it is a way of life.  I have been saying this for years, but now that 60 is on my doorstep, I have to face the reality of this personal idealism.  As long as I wake up every day looking forward to my time with my students, my decision looks sound.  Now, realities creep into my decision.  My wife has medical issues that, if I did choose to retire soon, would be difficult to handle financially since the State of Illinois has decided to jack insurance costs for retirees’ family members.  She is three years younger than me; so, I will have to wait until she gets onto Medicare before I can even logically consider retiring until I am 68.  I watch in horror as Republicans gleefully proclaim that they want to kill Medicare, and they have been saying this since the passing of Medicare during LBJ’s administration.  Tangentially speaking, I have been shaking my head in disbelief as these same cynical politicians have been expressing outrage with crocodile tears how “Obamacare” wants to cut money from Medicare, ignoring the fact that the money being cut out is wasteful spending, the very topic these politicians proclaim is most important.  (Uh-huh)
And then residents of Illinois got slapped in the face when Gov. Pat Quinn proclaimed that the state’s potential bankruptcy is due in part to public employees’ pensions.  Really?  It would not be because the past governors and legislatures stole from our pension fund, would it, Mr. Quinn?  It would not be because while we have been faithful in fulfilling our obligations to pay for our share, the state has not met its obligations?  Really?  My word, the blatant ignorance--no, the intentional misrepresentation--of the bleak financial state of Illinois by placing the blame on public employees should make our union membership to rise up in something above this Scooby-Doo moment of shock.  However, the response I have seen is depressing.
My local finally ended negotiations with our Board of Education concerning pay.  We settled on a three-year contract with the BOE in August, but we left the negotiations open for salary since this district is in even worse shape than most others in Illinois.  We correctly decided that we needed to see what the conditions of the district look like over the next few years and act responsibly according to that.  Teachers are trained to be problem solvers, and we tried to convey this to our BOE.  I honestly feared that we would have a frozen scale from the previous year like many of our neighboring districts now have, and I was not alone in this fear.  In looking back on my emotions, I kind of laugh.  I was relieved to see a 1% increase.  Imagine being happy with a 1% increase!  However, at least 75% of our membership did not show up for the meeting.  The younger teachers have resigned themselves to the conditions without trying to understand, but that is another blog for another time.
I think “dread” might be the best way to express the emotions of our membership, not anger.  We also got word in the last week or two that the pension system has the potential to cut pension benefits from 75% to 45%.  The younger staff has no perspective of that, being 40 years from retiring, but teachers my age are scared to death and feel powerless.  We wonder why our pension trustees did not sue the state when our funds were first raided.  We wondered why our trustees did not sue much sooner when anybody with an ounce of financial acumen would not express alarm about the upcoming insurmountable debt to the point of action.  Now, we hear comments like Quinn’s, and it reminds me of Baby Bush's “no one saw it coming” comment knowing he was lying through his teeth.  Now, I am faced with the prospect of settling for a 45% pension after 35+ years of teaching unless the amount of money I pay into the pension fund is to double within three or so years.
So, here I am, loving my job but faced with really tough choices.  Do I retire now to get the best percentage I can before they start the slash-and-burn attack on us?  Do I stick it out and pay more, essentially losing a sizable portion of take-home pay?  Do I pay the high premiums for my wife to keep her on, essentially decreasing the size of my pension  until she gets to the age of 65?  Perhaps the most important question is what do I do when I retire?  Who is going to hire me, knowing that most BOE’s concerns are not educational, but financial?  Do I want to go into a new career or job, knowing that it will be at or just above the minimum wage, putting myself in with 50% of the rest of the country at or below the poverty level?  Aren’t these laws intended to kill unions and force out expensive veterans like me, despite what they claim?
I think the answers to these questions lead me to only one solution:  Occupy My School District.  I am not ready to retire.  I can be a crotchety old gus when I have to, particularly to my “superiors,” so, I can do what needs to be done, and I can be loud about it.  I plan to stick it out until I am at least 72 years old and pay the increased payments to the pension fund to keep my 75%.  I plan to continue to be pushing my lawmakers and pension-fund trustees to do right by us.  Most importantly, I am going to be the most effective advocate for my students that I can be for many years to come.  I know I am only one person, but I advise those near retirement who still wake up and can not wait to get to school to occupy their school districts to show the folly of their ways.  We are not the problem--the politicians are.

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