By Brenda Ortega/ MEA Voice Editor
Sam Schweihofer enjoyed teaching special education in St. Clair County’s East China School District, but he was forced to make a choice when his daughter Colbie was born nearly a year ago—and he picked financial security over continuing his career in public education.
Ongoing threats by state lawmakers to eliminate school employee pensions became the tipping point in his decision to leave, he said. Frozen on step two after seven years on the job, and married to an educator—his wife, Kellyn, teaches kindergarten in Chippewa Valley—he could not continue entrusting his future to politicians who treat dedicated professionals as the enemy.
“The possibility of not having a guaranteed pension was a deal breaker for me,” he said.
State House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) continues to call pension reforms backed by the billionaire DeVos family a top priority for the next legislative session, despite serious concerns about the cost of forcing all new school employees into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan.
Plans to gut school employee pensions were derailed in December’s lame duck session, after intensive work by MEA lobbyists, MEA members, and other public education supporters calling attention to state budget experts’ projections of a five-year cost between $1.6 and $3.8 billion.
Continued vigilance and activism will be required to preserve retirement security for school employees and prevent costs which could mean a cut of $412 in the per pupil foundation allowance in the first year and more than $500 per pupil in each of the next four years.
In addition, while the pension change was portrayed as only affecting new hires, closing the defined benefit plan would put current and retired school employees’ pension security in jeopardy as well, since no new money would come into the system to keep it sustainable.
Changes were already made to the system in 2012, said Michael Shibler, superintendent of Rockford Public Schools. “Those changes appear to be working, so why change that?” he said.
School employees are paying more for health insurance premiums, while facing step freezes or wage cuts in many areas, Shibler said. “If the Legislature makes retirement less secure, or offers a plan that’s less attractive, people are quite simply not going to select teaching as a career.”
No one goes into education expecting to make big money, Schweihofer said, but the social contract between school employees and the public they serve has been frayed. Educators used to believe they could rely on the stability of health care benefits and a secure pension in exchange for making a smaller salary than comparably educated peers in other professions.
Now educators struggle with falling take-home pay while worrying about job security in a world of data-driven evaluations and lost tenure—all fueled by a negative perception that teachers are “underworked and overpaid,” which couldn’t be farther from the truth, he said.
Schweihofer coached sports year-round and worked a second job in the summers to make ends meet, amid the demands of planning, teaching, grading, and completing hours of mandated paperwork each week. “There weren’t enough hours in the day,” he said.
He now holds an entry-level job at a mortgage company, where he works saner hours and makes more money than he did in his seventh year of teaching with a Master’s degree. He also enjoys long-term prospects for income and retirement security that bring him peace of mind.
“When you have a family, and you start worrying about more than yourself, it’s an eye-opener,” he said. “I have to make sure my daughter’s future is what we want it to be.” His wife Kellyn says she’s glad Sam made the change; he has more time to spend with his daughter, and he’s less stressed out when he gets home. But she sees the low morale of teaching colleagues who remain and worries about the future of public education for her daughter.
“Where are we going to be in five years? What will our schools look like if we don’t stop treating teachers like public enemy number one?”