LONGVIEW — "There's a rallying cry being heard, and it's being heard more and more by our elected officials," says Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt.
Local educators – retired and active – covered the county’s courthouse lawn in red for two hours Saturday for the “Use Your ‘Teacher’ Voice and Vote rally in Longview.
"Use your teacher voice and be heard all the way to Austin. You've proven before that there's power in those voices and you can do it again."
Those who attended the rally back the push to make the issues challenging educators and the public education system a top priority in Texas.
"This is not about party,” says Suzanne Bardwell, a retired teacher of 35 years. “It is not about politics. It's about policies and policy issues. Most of the people up there have been in the trenches fighting hard, hard for public education."
Hallsville ISD art teacher, Amy Brown also attended the rally.
"I feel like things have gotten bad for teachers over the last several years, and I feel like having our voices heard is important,” says Brown.
Elected officials traveled from near and far to join the group of educators for the discussion on what should be the focus for the upcoming November elections and the nearing January legislative session.
"These folks gave their life to public schools,” says Tim Lee, the executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association. “Many of them have now retired. They're finding it difficult to live on the money that they receive through monthly annuity. Health care costs are up. Food costs are up. So, they need help."
It's been an ongoing fight for adequate benefits for Texas educators. Saturday, speakers including state Reps. Jay Dean, R-Longview and Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin took the podium to address key issues challenging the group. The main focuses were on the TRS-Care and TRS-ActiveCare healthcare plans, the public-school employees' defined benefits pension plan, unfunded mandates, and greater investments into the state's public-school system.
"I do feel that the unfunded mandates, for example, have to go,” says Brown. “They have to stop sending things down the pipeline and saying, 'well you must do this', but not give us money to do it."
"Retired teachers are dealing with higher health care costs, so we're going to make health care a higher priority for educators,” says Lee. “I believe that we can do it. I think that there is money available in the system, and I think the folks that are serving right now in the legislature will continue to help us."
Despite recent cost savings and Texas having the second best-funded pension plan in the country, there's still work to be done. The state hasn't increased pensions in at least a decade, and since the year began, nearly 36,000 TRS-care participants have left the health care program in search of cheaper plans.
"Some people will make the argument that money is already in the system,” says Lee. “Some people would say that there is revenue short-fall. We have to come together and figure out do we have the revenue? Are we going to need more revenue? And then, let's make a plan and fix it."