Senators ban union profiteering on state pension system

Employees of a teachers’ union who don’t work for a public school would be barred from receiving state teachers’ retirement benefits tied to their time spent outside the school system, under a bill passed by the Oklahoma Senate.

“If they’re an employee of the outside organization, they have to go work for that organization and take time off and not be on the school payroll,” said Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle.

Senate Bill 1579, per Paxton, states that when a school district employee is granted leave to serve as an employee of a national, statewide or school district, the former school district employee will not receive compensation from the school. district or any school district benefit.

Additionally, the former school employee will not receive any salary increases based on time spent working for a private entity if the employee later returns to public school employment. Only actual years of public school service would be counted.

Time spent as a union employee would not be used in calculating state retirement benefits.

Paxton said some school districts allow teachers to leave the district to work for a union while keeping the former teacher on the school payroll. Although the union can reimburse the district for the former employee’s salary, this arrangement can significantly inflate the former school employee’s state retirement benefits without taxpayers receiving work in return.

It increases the financial obligations of one of the least well-funded state pension systems without taxpayers receiving an offsetting benefit in public school classrooms.

The Oklahoma Teachers’ Retirement System Annual Financial Report, released June 30, 2021, showed the system’s funded status at the time was 71.5%, meaning it cannot cover the cost of all benefits due to teachers. The funded status would have been even lower if it hadn’t been for strong stock returns the previous year, the report notes. The teachers’ pension system will not be fully funded until age 17, according to current trends.

Paxton noted that Tulsa Public Schools has two people listed as school employees who do not work for the school and are instead employees of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. Paxton described the union employees as “two people who are on the school payroll who teach absolutely no classes housed in the school and who have offices in the school.”

Democrats have argued that union employees should be allowed to receive state retirement and other benefits even if they don’t work for a public school.

“These local school boards have agreements,” said State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City. “These local school employees have negotiated and negotiated with their local school boards for these deals, and that is overkill. This prevents teachers from having a stronger voice in advocacy.

Paxton noted that most school districts have employees who represent teachers in negotiations, but those representatives are not full-time employees of a union and they work for the school district. He said the arrangements covered by SB 1579 are not permitted anywhere by law.

“What’s excessive is the fact that it’s happening in every school in the first place because the law doesn’t allow it anywhere,” Paxton said.

SB 1579 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 35-9 vote that broke party lines with Democrats in opposition. The bill is now moving through the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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