What’s missing from the DPS pension dispute?

What’s missing? Teachers.

And that’s a little odd, isn’t it, since it is their pensions primarily at issue, and individually they have the most to gain or to lose.  Now mix in that the same people crying foul over the pension deal are usually leading the charge for this constituency: on blocking direct placement reform and the evaluation provisions of SB 191, and even on individual teacher dismissals. So why not call in the teacher brigade on the pension refinancing?

Well, because one can’t. No matter how one tortures the financing numbers, or claims willful ignorance on the 30-year-old, four-syllable practice which comprises an “interest rate swap” (which, just to clarify, is when two parties, um, swap interest rates), it’s pretty much impossible to argue that DPS teachers are anything but significantly better off as a result of the pension refinancing.

Before the refinancing, DPS’s pension faced isolation, a $400 million shortfall and demographic quicksand of just 1.2 active employees per retiree (more on this later). After the refinance and merger, DPS teachers now have their pensions funded at a higher rate than any other part of PERA; enjoy portability (so taking a job in a different Colorado district no longer means losing benefits); and are supported by a more diversified and stable funding base, as PERA at the time of the refinance had 2.5 active employees for every retiree (and I suspect that ratio has increased).

What is completely absent from this dispute is anyone clamoring for DPS teachers to return to the previous pension system — because even in the dark-clouds-and-lightning claims about the refinancing, absolutely no one can make an argument with a straight face that teachers should go back to what they had before (and if someone asks, I’d like to see their request honored). So where are Denver’s teachers, and particularly their union, the DCTA?


Well, DCTA publicly endorsed the very board members who are most vocal about the financing.  DCTA clashed strongly with the Democratic Senate primary candidate who has the most to lose. And while officially neutral until the primary is decided, when the NYT pointed out that DPS is hiring teachers at a time when most districts are firing them, DCTA head Henry Roman preferred his cloud with a dark lining, stressing that DPS hired fewer teachers this year than in previous years. All of which means DCTA is uncharacteristically silent on an important and highly visible policy issue that is clearly and overwhelmingly in the best interest of its members.

This situation recalls the face egg of the most recent labor negotiation, where DCTA gave the then-superintendent Bennet a vote of “no confidence” on a proposal that was eventually endorsed by their members by a margin of more than 3:1. I would anticipate an even higher portion of their membership would support their current pension deal compared to the old one. So DCTA can’t credibly argue to its membership that the pension deal was bad for teachers. But given their political bedfellows, they also can’t bear to publicly admit that it was very good for teachers. Hence their roar of silence.

For Colorado has not seen a farce with this much hot air since Balloon Boy (which also had as its genesis a staged PR campaign).  And like six-year-old Falcon Heene, the absent teachers seem far more sane then the perpetrators.  Where are teachers? Well, part of their absence might be that they have work to do. As noted above, one of the main impacts of the refinancing and merger was to keep pensions solvent by increasing the base of active employees to retirees.

Overshadowed by the rise in political humidity was the announcement last week that 350 more DPS students graduated than the previous year. Those 350 students mean an additional 12-14 teaching jobs. Which mean 12-14 more people paying into PERA. Which means recent and soon-to-be retiring teachers have an even larger base to fund their pensions.

In fact, reversing a long trend, DPS enrollment is growing, with an increase of over 2,400 students in the current year, which roughly equates to 100 additional teaching jobs. Now a large part of that is preschool (which is a new group, not incremental growth), but these teachers pay into PERA regardless. In fact, one could argue that enrollment, and the corresponding teacher base, is the most important pension variable under direct district control.

Perhaps teachers understand this all too well. Build better schools, attract more students, hire more teachers. The district administration has put its efforts fully behind these measures. Teachers seem largely on board. Were that this was everyone’s focus.

This entry was posted in Fiscal & Economic, Politics, Teacher Unions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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