Since 1947, local ORTA chapters have offered social activities, volunteer opportunities, classroom grants, and up-to-date information about retirement benefits to their members.
Beginning in 2012, when the Ohio Legislature passed pension reform bills which have resulted in continuing reductions in retirement benefits for active and retired teachers, ORTA has intensified its lobbying efforts with STRS Ohio and Ohio's legislators to protect and restore those benefits.
What exactly is ORTA doing for Ohio's active and retired teachers?
The best way to answer that question is to share these messages from ORTA's Executive Director Robin Rayfield and President Dean Dennis, from ORTA's December 2023 newsletter.
On the political side, ORTA has been seeking out and successfully working with other reform minded groups to elect Board Members to serve as strong fiduciaries. The last five candidates we supported have been elected to seats on the STRS board. On the legislative front, just this month, a piece of legislation initiated by ORTA, House Bill 78, passed the House and seems on track to become an Ohio code. House Bill 78 allows a rehired retiree who returned back to work for a school district the opportunity to run for a Retired Board seat. Previously, a rehired retiree was denied this opportunity under Ohio's codes. Representatives William Seitz (R) and Joseph Miller(D) sponsored this legislation.
Here is another piece of legislation ORTA has initiated, which should be of great interest to all retirees living in Ohio. While the legislation has not been introduced, it has passed review by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission and forwarded for the next step. The context of the legislation would provide an Ohio personal income tax exemption for all members drawing a pension from one of Ohio's five pension systems. The exemption would be capped to match the Social Security maximum tax exemption which is roughly $42,000. So, if your pension is under $42,000, then 100% of your STRS pension would be tax free. Again, this legislation is in its early stage but I feel confident it will have the support because Social Security pensions are tax exempt in Ohio. ORTA is working with Representative William (Bill) Seitz on this legislation.
Lastly, but importantly, you are likely hearing some buzz that the nearly 40 year old stagnant Employers Contribution needs to be raised. Here are my thoughts. It absolutely needs to happen. The reasoning is simple. The mess we are currently experiencing, such as teachers having to work longer by as much as 5 years, or until they hit age 65 for a full formula retirement, is too extreme. This has happened because the Employers Contribution has been stagnant since 1984. Ohio's Employer Contribution lags the other non Social-Security state by roughly 8%. Basically, when it comes to public pension systems, our teachers contribute the most while their employers contribute the least. This is why Ohio teachers have to work longer while they pay more. The stagnant Employers Contribution is also why teachers retire without any inflation protection. Ohio retirees know this better than anyone.
Please know that the proposal, which has yet to be drafted as legislation, would increase the Employer Contribution from 14% to 18% over an eight year period. This phase- in would be doable for school districts. If this legislation were to be passed, the STRS auditors would be able to work the designated monies into their assumptions. In doing so, our Trustees would have more wiggle room to restore lost benefits. For instance, if older teachers are able to retire earlier then this would free up monies for hiring younger teachers at a savings for the district. The additional revenue would also open the door for possible inflation protection.
Finally, after years of lobbying STRS that they needed to lobby the legislature for an Employer Contribution (ORTA has been bringing this up at Board meetings for at least 5 years), STRS has come around. STRS has drafted a letter and is asking ORTA and other stakeholders such as OFT, AAUP and OEA, for a letter of support for the Employer Contribution increase. ORTA has submitted a letter. ORTA believes that this is a missing piece of the puzzle to restore lost benefits along with more transparent investments. - Dean Dennis, President, ORTA
Did you know that in 2017, when STRS Ohio announced that it would eliminate the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for retired teachers, it was ORTA that convinced STRS to "suspend", rather than eliminate the COLA? This may sound like a simple matter of semantics, but words do matter. By suspending, rather than eliminating the COLA, it left an opening for ORTA to lobby to restore the COLA. In 2022, STRS granted a one-time 3% COLA and in 2023, a one-time 1% COLA was granted.
As another year comes to a close with the STRS pension system continuing down its path of denying its members promised benefits and continuing to punish active educators, I remain optimistic that the efforts of ORTA and other groups (Ohio STRS Members Only Forum and STRS Ohio Watchdogs) are having a positive impact on reforming our pension system. It is easy to become bitter and frustrated that the system has treated its members so poorly for so many years, but we can see change on the horizon.
Looking back to 2017, the STRS board had two lone voices challenging the loss of promised COLAs for retirees, and the increases in contributions and service requirements for actives. One voice was that of Yoel Mayerfeld, appointed by Ohio’s treasurer. As soon as Ohio’s current treasurer (Sprague) was elected Mr. Mayerfeld was replaced by a status quo member weakening the calls for reform. The other voice was Wade Steen, the governor’s appointee. Over the last several years Wade’s voice calling for reform was strengthened by the addition of STRS board members Rudy Fichtenbaum, Jullie Sellers, Liz Jones, Steve Foreman, and Pat Davidson. Things were looking positive for the chance at real reforms to fix the STRS pension system. Then Governor DeWine moved to replace Mr. Steen with a person dedicated to the continued path of mismanagement of our pension system (Bishop). I am at a loss as to why DeWine would take such an action. I can only speculate that, somewhere in this move is the hope by DeWine that this will assist in his plan to destroy public education in Ohio. His actions are having a devastating effect on Ohio’s system of public education. Actions such as Vouchers for All that divert public dollars to private education; the elimination of Ohio’s independent Department of Education; and now his action to destroy our pension system, making teaching in Ohio a less desirable career.
However, with five of eleven STRS board members committed to reforming STRS the members of STRS (both active and retired) have a chance to elect an additional reform candidate this spring. ORTA is committed to assisting any candidate committed to reforming our pension system win this spring’s election. - Robin Rayfield, Executive Director, ORTA
Did you know that members of ORTA's Executive Committee regularly attend meetings of the STRS Ohio Retirement Board to address the Board during Public Participation, advocating for transparency in STRS Ohio's investment practices and the restoration of our retirement benefits? If you cannot attend the Board meetings in person or virtually, you can read their speeches on the ORTA website.
Please consider joining ORTA and supporting the continuing campaign to protect and preserve retirement benefits for Ohio's active and retired teachers.