Charter School Reform Bill Includes Controversial Change For Some Teachers And School Workers

Oct 12, 2015

A charter school reform bill is zooming through the legislature after months of negotiation. But a pothole has opened up, relating to how those teachers fund their retirements.

Lawmakers say the bill would bring more transparency and accountability to the state’s troubled charter school system. But there was an amendment that clarified that teachers and school employees who work for private management companies that operate charters aren’t covered by the State Teachers Retirement System or the State Employees Retirement System, though they’ve been paying into both those pension funds and into Social Security. Sen. Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering) was among those who worked on the overall charter school reform bill this summer, though she says she wasn’t involved in presenting this amendment to both the STRS and SERS, which agreed to it. She says the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Ohio Education Association, took a neutral position. But as for the smaller Ohio Federation of Teachers, Lehner said,  Unfortunately OFT was not consulted, and when the amendment was offered as part of House Bill 2, we were under the understanding that everyone was in agreement with this, went ahead, allowed the amendment to go in and now we’re hearing from OFT that they’re not in agreement with this.”

And indeed, the OFT’s Melissa Cropper is angry – she says the union is pleased that the effort to reform charter schools is moving forward, but this has upset her and the membership. “The biggest problem is that we just did not have enough time to vet this issue,” Cropper said. "So once again, we’re seeing a piece of legislation that’s being passed that without it going through proper vetting channels – all the stuff added during conference committee that we never had an opportunity to see and comment on.”

Charter school critics have said charter school employees should be included in the state’s pension system because charter school operators get state money. And they note that schools have to pay more than twice as much to the state’s pension fund as they would toward Social Security. Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton), who has been involved in pension-related legislation, says he’s confused how that happened, since this provision had been discussed as part of the budget but was removed so the language could be refined over the last few months and then agreed on by the two pension funds. “I also will tell you that on their respective boards, they have members of the various trade unions, so I find it very interesting that some would claim that they were disenfranchised when the very retirement systems that their members are a part of and actually sit on the boards of – I’m not sure how they would claim that they were not aware of what was happening,” Schuring said.

But Nick Treneff, who speaks for the State Teachers Retirement System, says negotiation over the amendment went on for months and concluded with a meeting on Monday that not everyone might have been in on. “It was pretty fluid most of the summer. There wasn’t a point where we thought we had any language hammered out that was going to be agreed to until we really got down till just the last several days,” Treneff said.

Treneff says those charter school teachers and workers who work for private management companies and are currently in the pension system will stay in it. And that may be only a small group – most of them work at the National Heritage Academy chain, which has two schools in northeast Ohio.  But no one has any firm numbers on how many people would be affected. However, there are worries about what happens going forward.  Rep. Dan Ramos (D-Lorain) said on the House floor that the idea was to exclude those who pay into both Social Security and the pension system, "which is an issue that we do need to continue to work on to make sure that folks aren’t being made to pay into two systems. But it also makes ineligible any person who has a break in service from a charter school, which is not at all uncommon.”

During debate on the House floor, Schuring said he’d committed to Ramos that he’ll work with him to make sure there aren’t any unintended consequences from this bill. Lehner also said there might be a correction bill in the future, but her first priority was to get this long-awaited charter school reform measure passed now.