Teachers line up to question LePage’s proposed changes to pension, insurance

Posted March 04, 2011, at 1 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2011, at 5:26 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Large numbers of teachers are gathering in the State House to testify to lawmakers about Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to change pension and health insurance benefits for state workers and other public employees.

Teachers, school administrators and union leaders were just beginning to step to the podium at noon Friday after members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee spent the morning questioning Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett about changes that affect teachers.

Under LePage’s budget proposal, teachers would face the same changes facing state workers. Those include a 2 percent increase in the amount they pay toward the pension system, increasing the minimum retirement age from 62 to 65 for newer hires and freezing then capping the cost-of-living adjustment paid to retirees.

Diana Leighton, a math teacher at Belfast Area High School, called “absurd” the perception that teachers work shorter hours than most people and are paid for not working during the summer. Those summer wages are deducted from wages paid during the school year. Leighton also opposed raising the retirement age, arguing that expecting a teacher to stay in the classroom for 40 years would not help improve education standards in Maine.

Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said the proposed changes to the retirement benefits would harm retirees already struggling to pay bills.

“We have earned and deserve to retire with dignity,” Galgay said. “Our current retirement benefits are barely adequate and should not be reduced.”

Earlier Friday, several committee members expressed strong concerns about the amount of sacrifice being asked from teachers and state workers in order to help close an estimated $4.3 billion shortfall in the pension system.

Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, suggested that the state has to be careful not to discourage good people from entering the teaching field or staying as teachers.

“I think $400 million out of this package is a big portion and that is something I’m going to have to look at in terms of what’s fair,” Fredette said.