Retiring Oklahoma Teachers Told Pensions Are 'Guaranteed'

Saturday, January 22nd 2011, 10:32 am
By: News On 6

Lacie Lowry, News On 6

TULSA, Oklahoma -- Many teachers across the state are nervous about the future of the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System.

More than 260 of them attended a seminar in Tulsa Saturday to get their biggest question answered -- is my retirement money safe?

A News On 6 report this past week revealed the system could run out of money at the end of this decade.

Like the students they teach, educators at Saturday's event were listening, taking notes and asking questions.

What's the lesson? The health of the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS).

"I'm a little disappointed that our legislators have not kept up with the trend to fund the program as it should be or have borrowed money from the fund, which is what I've understand has happened in the past," said Dawn Cain, Northeastern State University.

The agency manages the pensions of more than 155,000 public school teachers and administrators, but the system has less than half the money is should.

Despite that, the executive director told a crowd, their money is safe.

"Your monthly benefit is going to be in your bank account, every month, guaranteed," said OTRS Executive Director James Wilbanks.

Dr. James Wilbanks' statement earned a sigh of relief from Becky Enoch, who's retiring this spring after 38 years of teaching.

"I was concerned until the man inside just told me that I didn't have anything to worry about, so I'm going to take Oklahoma at its word," Enoch said.

Wilbanks says there's a $30 million funding gap between what the system brings in and pays out in benefits each year. But he says the $10 billion the system has invested more than covers the gap down the road.

"Long term, we think we are going to be okay. Now it doesn't mean everything is sunshine and roses. We do need to address our funding issues and we are excited the legislature has shown a great deal of interest this year," Wilbanks said.

Teachers say they'll be following any political decisions on retirement as well.

"I would like to see the teachers retirement system funded fully. Traditionally, it has been one of the poorest funded and I think that's a disservice to the educators of our state," Wilbanks said.

The State Legislature appointed a committee to look at ways of improving the state's five retirement systems.

Whatever the committee decides, it must happen soon. Dr. Wilbanks says any changes to the system can take two decades before you see an effect.