Teacher pension fund not likely to be replaced
Editor's note: This is the third article in a series regarding the impact of doing away with pensions (defined benefit plans) and replacing it with a defined contribution plan (such as a 401K or a 403b).
Earlier this month, two Board of Finance members suggested eliminating the pension plan for new town hires and replacing it with a 457 plan (which, for town employees, is the equivalent of a 401k plan in the private sector). Bob Stone said if the Town of Fairfield and the state don't consider this change, "We'll either face catastrophic bankruptcy or we're going to raise taxes to unheard of heights just to fund them."
While the town contributes to the pension fund for police officers, firefighters, Town Hall employees and others, it does not bear the burden of paying into the pension fund for Fairfield's teachers. Rather, the state does.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell has approached unions to come back to the bargaining table to discuss "shared sacrifices," according to state Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134. Hwang did not say if Rell has suggested doing at the state level what Stone and Kenneth Brachfeld have suggested for new hires at the local level.
If such discussions do take place during collective bargaining, Marilyn Ferenac, president of the Fairfield Education Association, believes it wouldn't be so easy to scrap pensions in place of a 403b plan. She cited strength in numbers. There are two unions that serve the state's teachers, the Connecticut Education Association (which covers most of the Nutmeg State) and the American Federation of Teachers.
If pensions were to be eliminated for new teachers in the future, Ferenac doesn't believe that such a change would dissuade young people from entering the field.
"When I first started teaching," said Ferenac, "I didn't even think about that. I was not looking [ahead to] retirement." Ferenac, who has been at the front of classrooms for 39 years, said one doesn't usually get a decent pension until maybe 20 years in.
"I think the average person going into the field goes into it for the reason of teaching, because they love children, because they want to help somebody in that way, because they love the subject matter."
She noted many teachers get involved in coaching or after-school programs, where there's sometimes no extra pay involved, because they truly love what they do.
Teachers contribute more of their base salary to their pensions than do town employees -- 7.5 percent compared to a maximum of 4.5 percent for town employees. In addition, they won't receive social security when they become of age. However, one built-in advantage for teachers, said Hwang, is that their pension is "totally portable," that is to say that they can relocate from one town to another and not lose anything. Such is not the case for someone who might go from working in Fairfield town hall to working at the town hall in Trumbull.
Possibly eliminating pensions for new teachers, or new state employees, is something that would have to be negotiated and subject to collective bargaining agreements.
"If we are going to evaluate and make these changes," Hwang said, "we have to recognize them. We can't make unilateral changes. It's a different ballpark from the private sector. Not to say it shouldn't be considered, but we need to be aware when negotiations are occurring to offer these kinds of viewpoints."
Hwang, who is conscious of the current economic crisis the state is facing, did not say one way or the other, when pressed, if he would be in favor of doing away with pensions for new teachers.
"There are teachers who have made a difference in my life and I respect what they do day in and day out," he said. "They're an integral part of our community and obviously they deserve recognition for their contrbution and a just, appropriate compensation, but it has to be considered in the overall economic environment that we live in."
A few years back, the state was funding about 65 percent of the teacher pension fund but then a law passed that required the state to fund 100 percent of it.
With Connecticut in the current state it is in -- facing a massive deficit -- might legislators seek to do at the state level what Stone and Brachfeld have suggested for Fairfield's town workers?
"I don't see that happening in the very near future," said Ferenac. "And I don't see the need since we give so much of our own money."
She added that if teachers had only a 403b plan, it would be risky for those she represents.
"People who had 401Ks, with their money invested in the stock market, lost tremendous amounts of money in the last couple of years."