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Local teachers protest pension overhaul

 OBSERVER STAFF REPORT

Williston Central School was the site Monday afternoon of teacher protests against proposed legislation to overhaul public employee pensions. The next morning, Champlain Valley Union teachers picketed outside the high school in Hinesburg.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski introduced pension reform legislation last week, saying current program costs are unsustainable. 

“Our state pensions are in critical need of reform to stabilize the system and get it on track for long-term stability,” she wrote in a letter to Vermont media outlets in March.

The current pension program for teachers and state employees is under-funded by $4.5 billion, with another $604 million deficit coming this year, according to Krowinski. 

“We must all work together to ensure that we guarantee retirement for those who have dedicated their lives to serving Vermont — before it’s too late,” she wrote.

The Vermont teachers union came out against the House proposal last week, saying it would extend the retirement age, boost teacher contributions, diminish benefits and cut cost-of-living adjustments while not seeking more funding from wealthy Vermonters or corporations.

“We’ve urged state leaders to seek a dedicated source of revenue for the pension’s obligations by raising taxes on those Vermonters who have done exceedingly well both before and during this pandemic,” Vermont teachers union president Don Tinney said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the speaker seems to prefer taking money out of the pockets of teachers rather than ask the most fortunate among us to pay more. This is a particularly cruel way to thank teachers for their hard work supporting students during a pandemic.”

The Vermont School Library Association also strongly rejected the proposal.

“We stand in solidarity with the Vermont state employees whose futures would also be negatively impacted by the proposed changes,” the organization said in a press release. “A pension is, indeed, a promise.”

In January, State Treasurer Beth Pearce recommended cuts to the state employee and teacher pension systems. Top lawmakers in the House kept their cards close to the vest for months, working behind the scenes to craft a response, which was released last Wednesday in the House Government Operations committee.

Between trimming benefits and asking for higher contributions, the House proposal would cost school workers a cumulative $300 million. For state employees, the cost would be about $200 million. Legislators are offering to pitch in more state dollars, too — an extra $150 million one-time contribution. The proposals in play would not touch benefits for current retirees or those within five years of retirement.

There are many reasons why Vermont finds itself staring down the barrel of billions in unfunded liability in its state employee and teacher pension systems. The funds have consistently fallen short of expected returns, and demographic trends also contribute to the problem. But one of the biggest culprits has been several generations of Vermont’s political leaders, who for decades shorted their contributions to the system. 

Since the mid-2000s, Vermont has been making the required contributions, and then some, in an effort to begin paying down the system’s ballooning debts. But workers who testified Monday and 

Friday in the House bristled that this latest overhaul put the burden mostly on workers.

“You didn’t play by your own rules. You borrowed Peter to pay Paul. You stole from us. And to add insult to injury, you’re about to mandate that we pay for your losses. Please clean up your own mess,” Susan Oliveira, a school counselor living in Ferrisburgh, told lawmakers.

Instead of asking workers to contribute more out of their paychecks and ultimately collect fewer benefits, the unions representing state employees and teachers have called for an income tax on Vermont’s one-percenters. Many testifying Friday evening and Monday echoed their calls, but the proposal appears to be a political nonstarter. 

Roughly 20,000 Vermonters likely would be affected by the proposed changes — a disproportionate share of which are women who make up about three-fourths of the teaching workforce and a slim majority of state employees. This is also the first major political test of Vermont’s newest legislative leaders, who, for the first time in history, are women as well.

“It’s not lost on us that this proposal is being forced through by a speaker who has historically worked for women and children and now is leading this attack on women and children,” Michelle Salvador, a substance misuse prevention consultant, told lawmakers Monday.

The House’s pension proposal has not yet received a floor vote, and the Senate is waiting to see what the lower chamber votes out before beginning its work. 

— Lola Duffort of VTDigger contributed to this report.