Open Reporting: Help us explore how pension costs are hitting schools

California has never spent more on public schools than it does today, but the amount it invests per-pupil still ranks near the bottom compared to other states.

With one particular fixed cost expected to grow rapidly over the next few years, things could get even worse.

I’m talking about pensions—the amount of money school districts must contribute annually to cover their teachers and other staff members in retirement.

In the past year, CALmatters, Capital Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times have partnered to examine the history of the state’s pension woes and how key decisions to boost public workers’ benefits without setting aside extra money to pay for them have threatened the bottom lines for universities as well as state and local governments. Now, we’re turning our attention to schools.

Districts’ pension costs are set to double by 2021—just as growth in the state education budget is projected to slow down and as pressure mounts for schools to boost standardized test scores. Those realities have districts worried about how they’ll balance their budgets and provide for students.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be exploring what it means for teachers and students and sharing what I learn.

Most teachers’ pensions are modest, but balancing the cost of their retirement with the cost of their students’ learning has never been easy. When the California School Boards Association surveyed its members earlier this year, the group found that rising pension costs have already led about half of them to cut programs to help balance their budgets. Some teachers unions have a different perspective. One local union seeking a raise during contract negotiations downplayed the district’s pension burden and argued there was actually enough money in reserves to cover the higher pay it wanted.

Needless to say, this topic is complex and charged. We hope our report will provide clarity. And to ensure our reporting is as fair and as comprehensive as possible, we need your help. We want to hear from you.

Do you have a strong feeling to share about whether teachers’ pensions are too costly or not generous enough? Is there an interesting report on this topic that you feel I have to read while I do my reporting? Are you a school board member grappling with this problem right now and unsure what to do?

Email me at [email protected] or tweet @calefati, using #cmteacherpensions. We’ll be sharing updates about this story and engaging conversation using that hashtag.

We’ll also be contacting the state Department of Finance, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the California State Teachers Retirement System, the California Public Employee Retirement System, the Brown administration, state lawmakers and staff from both sides of the aisle, school officials, teachers and their union representatives, parents and interest groups—asking for help understanding this topic and also sharing our findings to seek further comments.

And we plan to keep readers posted on key developments as they arise. Stay tuned.

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