Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lawmakers punish public employees, expand charters

The South Carolina Education Association publishes by email a weekly update of legislative activity, and the update from the past week documents the damage done by our lawmakers to the state's retirement system.

To wit:

The House passed H.4976 (Ways and Means Committee), the bill that changes the S.C. Retirement System this week. Included in this bill are:

• Increases in employee contributions 1% to 7.5%
• Removes sick and annual leave from the Average Final Compensation(AFC)
• Lowers benefits by changing to five years of salaries from three years in benefit calculations
• Increases service years to 30 years for personnel hired after July 1, 2012
• Prohibits participation in TERI for personnel hired after July 1, 2012
• Increases employee contributions for General Assembly members 1% to 11%
• Prohibits General Assembly members from drawing retirement while still serving

Only two amendments were introduced during the debate on this bill. The first amendment sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Bales (Richland) would have allowed SCRS participants with ten years of service to keep their annual and sick leave in the AFC. The second amendment sponsored by Rep. Harry Ott (Calhoun) would have provided SCRS participants with 23 years to maintain the current plan. Both amendments failed before the bill passed 86-27. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The Senate Finance Special Retirement Subcommittee met to hear comments from all groups that have a vested interest in the redesign of the S.C. Retirement System (SCRS). Jackie B. Hicks, The SCEA President presented our requests to keep annual and sick leave in the AFC calculation, as well as maintaining the current calculation of benefits at the last three years instead of five.

So let's process this news.

As a result of these changes, public employees will pay more into their retirement accounts.

But public employees can expect to receive less in state retirement benefits.

And public employees will have to work longer than they presently do, before qualifying for full retirement benefits.

And they lose their deferred-retirement-option program.

And nobody is exempted from these changes, so people who made financial decisions twenty years ago based on their expectation of the state and its retirement system are punished, penalized, degraded and ultimately forced to work longer, for less, to receive lower benefits for the rest of their lives.

It hardly seems fair that the only change to be suffered by legislators themselves is that they can't receive benefits while serving in the legislature.

But is that change retroactive? Do those who already collect big retirement checks while keeping a death-grip on their seats have to give up their spoils until they give up their power? It's unclear.

Additionally, the SCEA report notes the changes to the state's charter school statutes that were approved this week:

The Senate passed the charter school bill, H.3241 (Owens-Pickens), which revises the charter school laws in the state. This bill was amended to:

• Allow more charter schools to form including sponsorships by universities
• Provide opportunities for single gender schools
• Gives charter school students access to sports and extracurricular activities in traditional schools

The House has voted to nonconcur with the Senate amendments and the Senate has voted to insist on its amendments. The bill will now head to a Conference Committee where the Senate has appointed Senators Matthews, Hayes and Fair to be its representatives.

Now universities will be able to grant charters. Yet the funding for these charter schools won't come from the universities' own budgets; these new charters will continue to drain the treasuries of local school districts.

Is it fair that local school boards -- who had their authority to deny charter applications stripped from them -- should see their appropriations diverted to charter schools in their areas?

And single-gender schools -- that's the very definition of segregation, isn't it? Are single-race schools next? What about single-religion schools? And if not, why not, when the precedent of establishing segregation as a defining characteristic of such a school has already been set?

And I must, to ease the throbbing pain in my brain, ask this simple question: If parents want to enroll their children in charter schools, why should traditional public schools be required to accept those charter-school students who desire the sole benefit of playing sports?

If traditional public schools are good enough for the purpose of playing games, why aren't they good enough for earning grades?

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