COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — As retired teachers in Ohio grapple with no cost-of-living increases to their state pensions, active teachers are delaying their retirement.
With 30 1/2 years of service, Angela Christy said she planned to retire from her education career this year.
Retirement plans for the school psychologist in Westerville, however, were uprooted after the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio raised the number of years of service a teacher has to devote before receiving full retirement benefits.
Adopted in 2013, the pension fund requires active teachers to work five additional years — a total of 35 years — in order to receive full retirement benefits, according to STRS’s website. That rule change has disrupted retirement plans for many educators, including Melissa Cropper, who serves as president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
“It has greatly extended my career,” she said.
Cropper, who is on leave as a library media specialist at Georgetown Exempted Village School District, said she thought she’d be able to retire after 30 years.
Although Cropper said the move by STRS was necessary in order to keep the $98 billion pension fund above water, she said the 35-year service requirement means she won’t be eligible for full retirement benefits until she’s 65 years old.
“The closer I get to when I thought I could retire, the more it bothers me,” she said. “It’s one of those things — it feels like a choice that has been taken away from you.”
STRS Board Chairman Robert McFee, who teaches in Cleveland, said the series of pension reforms made by STRS were designed to help the pension fund get back in the black. Changes made — like eliminating a cost-of-living increase and increasing required years of service — have “greatly” improved STRS’s funding ratio, McFee said.
“As a board chair, as a board member, our greatest concern is the sustainability of our fund and making sure that it’s there for future generations, not just the current generation,” he said.
Although McFee said the board is considering reinstating a COLA and dropping a pending requirement that would mandate teachers to be at least 60 years old prior to retirement, effective 2026, Christy said she’d like to invest her retirement money elsewhere.
Like Cropper, Christy had a similar projection. She started teaching full-time in 1994 under the guise that she’d be able to retire after 30 years.
If she followed through with her original plan, which would now be deemed “early retirement” by STRS, she said she’d only receive about 36 percent of her final average salary (FAS) each year in retirement — an income she said she can’t afford to live off of.
“I’m kind of in a stuck position,” she said. “I can’t quit, I can’t retire — it’s just a hard place to be when you’re stuck.”
With a slew of health problems, Christy hoped to retire not only to avoid the physical strain of her job but also to spend more time volunteering in her community and with her parents — who are planning on moving back to Ohio once she retires.
“My parents are in their 70s, so I just have to hope that they will still be around by the time I’m eligible to retire,” she said.
In addition to lengthier tenures, active teachers are paying more into STRS than ever before. Ten years ago, educators paid 10% of their salary into STRS annually, according to the pension fund’s contribution rates.
Today, the employee contribution rate is up to 14%. For a school teacher who makes $60,000 a year, that means $8,400 of their salary will go toward STRS.
Meanwhile, a $60,000-salaried worker whose retirement funds go into Social Security — where the employee contribution rate sits at 6.2% — will pay only $3,270 into retirement, less than half of what an educator is required to pay into STRS.
“I am working longer and getting less money for it,” Christy said. “It is criminal.”
While Christy looks forward to the freedom of retirement, there’s no guarantee that she and other soon-to-be retirees will receive a cost-of-living increase when it is officially time to hang up her uniform.
“It makes it a very scary feeling, knowing that your income is never going to change and you’re at the will of STRS,” she said.