School chief candidates Tuck, Thurmond on pensions

Marshall Tuck, Special to CALmatters

California’s public schools have a crisis when it comes to funding pensions. California must do a better job of balancing the need to attract the very best workforce in the country while meeting the needs of our students in their classrooms.

The unfunded liability for the California State Teacher Retirement System is over $100 billion. And the obligations continue to grow.

Sacramento politicians passed legislation requiring school districts to pay more to fund these growing liabilities. The failure to address this issue is having a growing and negative impact on our public schools.

In 2013, school districts contributed 8.25 percent of teachers’ payroll for pensions. Today, that number is 16.28 percent and it will grow to 19.1 percent by 2020.

Those contributions come directly from school budgets that would otherwise fund smaller class sizes, more programs for students, more counselors, more pay for teachers and other areas that directly improve the education of children.

Not surprisingly, when I speak to superintendents, they identify increased pension costs as one of the most significant obstacles they face. Yet Sacramento politicians kick the can down the road.

As State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will make addressing this crisis a top priority. I will work immediately to launch a commission focused on developing a solution that doesn’t make our kids carry the burden.

I will work closely with the next governor, the Legislature, education, and labor leaders and others. Leadership at all levels will be needed to meet this challenge. While a comprehensive solution needs to be developed collaboratively, any successful reform plan should include these principles:

  • Urgency. Every day we ignore this crisis it gets bigger, and it puts the quality of education for future generations in greater jeopardy.
  • Transparency. Most people are unaware of the magnitude of the problem. Californians need to know the impact this issue is having on public education.
  • Learn from others. We should closely analyze and learn from other states that have had more success in managing sustainable pension plans.
  • Be realistic. We need to be more realistic when estimating the rate of return on pension fund investments and be sure our actuarial assumptions are right, so we can better plan for the future.
  • Don’t burden students. We can’t ask districts to increase their contributions any further unless the state provides the resources to do so.
  • Preserve benefits already been earned. Benefits that employees already earned should not be adjusted.
  • Creativity. We need to look closely at variables such as at state contributions, commitments to new hires, size of unearned benefits and employee contributions in order to make our pension programs sustainable.

This crisis has a direct and negative impact on our students but politicians have avoided this issue for years. This must change. For the sake of our students, we need to come together urgently and find a solution to this crisis.

Marshall Tuck is a candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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