Sunday, April 30, 2017
Has the Fairfax County School Board Just Declared War on all School & County Employees?
I don’t see these kind of neighborhoods that often because I live on the other side of the county, among 60's split levels and 50's three and four bedroom bricks on a slab or over a basement. Older homes are nestled here and there among the classic early suburban landscape. My neighborhood is filled with teachers, plumbers, bakers, firefighters, policemen, small business owners, carpenters, and mechanics–and I love it. But gotta admit, McLean is spectacular.
The reason for our visit was to observe the McLean Citizens Association’s meeting on our teachers’ pension plan. The Association had recently come out swinging in the Washington Post and local papers at ERFC, the Fairfax teachers’ supplemental retirement plan, and we wanted to get a feel for what it was about.
The recommendations they had for the people who teach in the McLean and Fairfax County public schools was that their pension plan be privatized and reduced to mostly what the teachers themselves could contribute from their $47K starting salary, or $58K average salaries.
After all, the people whose homes I was driving by insisted, we don’t have those generous retirement plans like ERFC, which pays retirees an average of $1,429 a month. That $1.4K is from deferred compensation and the employees’ own contributions, and out of that $1.4K the cost of teachers’ personally paid health insurance is deducted, making take home considerably less.
The average household income in McLean according to the census bureau is well over $164K per household, and over $194K for families. Single guys in McLean make an average of $132K.
Of course, I’m glad for them that they do, well done, and would never go to the newspapers to recommend their hard earned money be taken away, but comparing teachers’ delayed compensation to their own portfolios, golden parachutes, and stock options might be a better comparison than-- you’ve got a pension plan, and I don’t.
On Monday April 24 and on Thursday night April 27, I went to two more meetings. These were of the Fairfax County School Board.
These meetings were for the final deliberations and vote on an FCPS budget proposal that would cut ERFC-- not about privatizing the plan immediately; that would be too expensive, but about reducing benefits for teachers with under 5 years or new hires–the first step.
The first meeting on Monday was 7 hours long because when all the community attendees arrived at the time scheduled, the Board left the public observers sitting for the first 1 ½ hours, waiting while the Board excused themselves to go into closed session. They would go into closed session for another hour later in the day before finishing the meeting. My friends and I sat and waited through both delays while the board attended to other more important matters.
To fully understand, it’s important to know that ERFC has been a well managed pension system, not in danger of failing, conforming to best practices consistently, and performing well compared to national plans.
On Monday, my friends and I watched as the Board questioned the ERFC managers and coordinators vigorously and with less than professional respect at times. It became progressively more clear, based on their questioning that the Board was all over the map in their relative understandings of large scale investment and pension funds, with most having little experience, expertise, or self-education in the area. It also became clear that the proposal to reduce ERFC, which had been published as part of the 2018 budget back in September, was a fixed goal, not a possible consideration as most budget items are.
The second meeting on Thursday night April 27 was the business meeting, where it would all be decided. That one lasted until after 11 and also included a hiatus for a closed meeting while the Board recused itself.
The Board was arrayed as always across the front of the stage and the house was pretty full, but not SRO. Teachers have a hard time doing weekday evening meetings. They have necessary second jobs, papers to grade, family requirements, and often small children, but many, who could not be there, had called, e-mailed or sent their concern.
The reasons the Board had been giving since September for the ERFC changes was to give teachers raises, help balance the budget, and establish the long-term health of the fund.
Had we been suspicious, we might have suspected this was not entirely genuous because the projected savings was $4.7 million for this year, and the Board had $22 million in general carryover they could have used, an additional $8 million dedicated to the Boards’ own “special projects” carryover, and they were spending $2.4 million on a computer program to add additional testing and data collection for all elementary schools.
But these were people we knew, from our districts, people who ran on caring about our public schools, about children, and their teachers.
Megan McLaughlin and Tom Wilson, in a last ditch effort to stop the changes, presented a motion to postpone the decision for no longer than a year, for more study. Afterall, the proposed changes if directed to salaries for this year would give each employee $200 a piece for the year, not enough to cover much of anything. The cuts would not seriously relieve budget woes in a $2.7 billion proposed budget– and the fund is not in trouble unless Fairfax pulls its contributions. There is no hurry we can wait a year, they maintained.
The rest of the Board denied the motion to postpone and at the end of the day, most voted to cut what would amount to 3% of ERFC benefits from all new hires who start on or after July 1, 2017. (Voting to cut new hires' pensions was Hynes, Schultz, Strauss, Evans, Moon, Kaufax, & McElveen,)
The new plan would also require our 2017-18 first year teachers and all after to work well over 30 years for a retirement. A 22 year old would have to work 37 years and a 25 year old, 34 before being eligible for the reduced benefits.
The cherry on the cake was yet to come though. One final motion was presented after all was done-Elizabeth Schultz proposed another working group on both County and School pensions. It was decided they did not need to include all employee compensation in her motion because they had already initiated a joint study group that would study how they could change compensation for All County and School employees, it would consist of Sharon Bulova and Sandy Evans, and their respective Budget chairs. *
The Working Group was approved with only Ryan McElveen voting no. Chair Sandy Evans and Schultz agreed from the stage that it should not be a large or far ranging working group made up of citizens and stakeholders, but should be 3 Board of Supervisors members and 3 Interested School Board members.
Next year, it would not be 3% of retirement for newbies, everything would be on the table–on both the County side and the School side.
As I walked out of the meeting after 11, I recognized several of the McLean Citizens Association members sitting with their laptops up and running. They were smiling.
In my quiet house in my working class neighborhood, I didn’t get to sleep until 4 a.m.
*CORRECTION: After rewatching the recordings of the end of the April 27 meeting, Apologies to Ms. Schultz for attributing the General Compensation study group to her motion in the original blog. Her motion was to create a new group to study pensions. However, there was substantial discussion that concluded they did not need to include other compensation in her motion, because the school board had already recently authorized a Joint Working Group to study General Compensation. The outcome was the same. Everything is still on the table, it was just done with 2 working groups rather than one.