Vermont's largest union, the NEA, went to the Statehouse Tuesday, fighting back against proposed changes to benefits that include raising the retirement age and asking teachers to pay more for health care.
"And I hope all working people of this state recognize these recommendations as shortsighted and detrimental to the effort to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers in this state," said Christopher Hood, a high school teacher.
But the NEA also offered an olive branch, acknowledging the pension system is facing a crisis as people retire younger and live longer. Payouts are set to increase $30 million at a time the state is facing a $150 million deficit.
"The question is not will there be proposals enacted that we don't like-- there will be," said Joel Cook of the Vt. NEA. "We'd have to be blind not to see that coming. Everybody in the state has been facing this in the last year or two and schools and educators are no different."
The teachers union would not give details but says it's close to releasing an early retirement plan that could save taxpayers between $25 million and $30 million. It's based on the idea that older teachers cost more than younger ones.
"What we want to do is become active players in the work of the Legislature," Cook said.
"I think if I were looking for some positive signs here I'd say it appears perhaps people are starting to recognize that something needs to change," said Jeb Spaulding, D-Vt. Treasurer.
Spaulding is leading a bipartisan committee appointed by the Legislature to review the pension system. The Democrat says boosting the teacher retirement age to 65 with 30 years of service will save $12 million a year. Currently some teachers can retire with payouts at 55 years old.
"That's an expensive plan," Spaulding said. "These may have looked great 20-30 years ago when they were put in place, but as more and more people are taking advantage of them it's outstripping the taxpayers' ability to support the system."
Changes would not impact already retired teachers and Spaulding says he's open to the NEA's ideas.
"We're in this discussion now for the greater good," Cook said.
The Vermont teachers union plans to meet with legislative leaders later this week and then release a finalized plan next week. Lawmakers will look at both groups' recommendations when they return in January since changing the pension plan is under their control.