Thank you to Elaine and to the many other advocates all across the Region and state who are standing up and speaking passionately about education and teachers.
Members of the House, thank you for inviting me to speak today about educator pensions, a topic about which I am passionate. I speak today not only for myself, but for the hundreds of thousands of my colleagues – career educators who have educated and will continue to educate the next generation of citizens in our state. My story can be replicated from one end of Illinois to the other.
Before I speak about pensions though, please let me tell you a little about myself. My name is Elaine Ferguson. I graduated from Western Illinois University in the spring of 1972 with a degree in elementary education. That fall I was offered a job teaching first grade in west-central Illinois along the banks of the Mississippi River in the small rural town of Nauvoo. I accepted the job, fell in love with my students and the little town of Nauvoo, and spent my whole career at the Nauvoo-Colusa Elementary school teaching most grade levels K-6. But the majority of my career was in first grade and kindergarten. I obtained my Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education in 1982, and continued teaching in Nauvoo until I retired.
As I said, the majority of my years were in kindergarten and first grade. It was hard work, and the salary was such that I had to budget carefully. My first salary in 1972 was $7,000, and I retired 33 years later with a Masters Degree and a salary of less than $40,000. My pocketbook was empty many of those years, but my heart was full.
Although my salary was small, the needs of my students were great. Money was tight in the district, and I, like many of my colleagues, easily spent up to $1,000/year on supplies for our own classrooms. We didn’t complain; we just did it knowing that our students deserved our best efforts. We didn’t have a lot of extra spending money, but we had hope. Hope – because of a promise. A promise from the Illinois State Constitution that we would have a pension. A promise in which we believed.
As I said, my exit salary at the end of my career with a Masters Degree was just under $40,000. My TRS pension that first year after my insurance deduction was just a little over $27,000. Today my take home pension is just about $37,000. I do not receive Social Security, and if my husband dies before I do, I will not receive a spousal benefit from Social Security. My TRS is my only income. Discussions of offering teachers in our state a defined contribution/401K style plan are worrisome because educators do not receive Social Security.
While teaching I diligently paid every penny I owed to fund my TRS pension. Every single paycheck had that TRS deduction. Up to 9.4% of my salary was deducted every single time. No one else paid what I owed to TRS; I paid it myself. I could have used that 9.4 %, but I managed to pay my bills without it. After all, I had hope and a promise. My pension, promised to me in the Illinois State Constitution which would allow me to live with dignity in retirement.
Today though, I am worried. I am worried that the talk of pension cuts is demoralizing to our dedicated educators who give their all every day. I retired with the hope and the promise – the promise that my pension would be there. I worry about my colleagues who are still in the classroom. Do they have the hope? Do they believe in the promise? The teachers of today are under constant pressure to do more and more in the classroom. The overwhelming amount of paperwork, the constant testing, the unfunded mandates, the social issues. Teaching is becoming harder and harder every day. Additionally, scapegoating teacher pensions for the state’s fiscal woes is wrong and must stop.
The Illinois Constitution is crystal clear that pensions for current participants shall not be diminished nor impaired. As recently as May of 2015, The Illinois Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the pension cutting bill SB 1 was unconstitutional. My fellow retirees and I were thankful for that result.
I would encourage the legislature and the governor to focus on passing a budget which funds education so students and educators have one less thing about which to worry. Legislation to cut constitutionally protected pensions should not be intertwined with the passing of a budget.
The debt owed to the TRS and the other retirement systems needs to be paid. Cutting pensions of current participants is a fruitless endeavor, and we do not need the Illinois Supreme Court to tell us that once again. Pension funding needs to be automatic. The past needs to be set aside, and we need to look toward the future. The State of Illinois must fund its obligations.
Hundreds of thousands of educators have diligently met the financial obligations required of them to fund their own TRS pension. The state should do the same thing and not attempt to balance the budget on the backs of those who have met every commitment required of them. The Illinois State Constitution is clear. A pension is a promise. Please don’t break that promise.