Dec. 18: Tell the governor we need full funding for our public schools; No decision on TRS office space

Holiday note: Texas AFT offices will be closed for the holiday break through Monday, Jan. 4. The next edition of the Hotline will be sent Friday, Jan. 8.


Educator Victory: McAllen AFT Wins Remote Work Option

McAllen AFT, local 6329, logoIn a video released Thursday, Dec. 17, the superintendent of McAllen ISD, Dr. J.A. Gonzalez, announced school employees would be given the option to work remotely for three weeks following the return from winter break.

This news comes after concerted campaign by members of McAllen AFT and a diverse community coalition to revise the district’s reopening plans in light of Hidalgo County’s rising COVID-19 case numbers and the expected post-holiday surge of infections. An open letter urging district officials to allow employees to work remotely in January was signed by nearly 250 district employees, union leaders, health officials, and lawmakers.

In his announcement video, Gonzalez also encouraged parents to keep as many students as possible home as virtual learners during this period.


 

Tell the Governor We Need Full Funding for Our Public Schools

Text says, "Call Governor Abbott and tell him our schools need full funding guaranteed through the end of this unprecedented school year." Phone number is 512 463 2000.

Twenty-three public education organizations, including Texas AFT, wrote to Gov. Abbott this week to ask that he ensure full funding for the entire 2020-2021 school year. The letter notes that under current Texas Education Agency guidelines, there is no such assurance for sustained funding past the first 18 weeks of the school year. Texas schools are funded based on enrollment, and districts across the state have experienced significant enrollment declines because of COVID-19. Without this “hold harmless” extension, declining enrollment could jeopardize school funding, potentially leading to harmful cuts.

We ask our members to call Gov. Abbott and echo the demand to ensure sustained school funding for the rest of this year. Read the letter sent to Gov. Abbott earlier this week.

 


Send a Letter: Educators Are Front-Line Workers

Text says, "Educators are front-line workers. They deserve the protection of front-line workers." Image shows a COVID-19 molecule.

Texas AFT continues to fight for all educators to have priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine, as front-line workers. Last week, we asked Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, to prioritize school employees for vaccine distribution. Now, we need your help. Send our e-letter to urge Dr. Hellerstedt and the rest of the panel making distribution decisions to prioritize educators and school employees in their vaccine allocation plans.


TRS December 2020 Quarterly Board Meeting Update

T-R-S Care Fund Balance diagrams. Results are discussed in text of newsletter.
At its December quarterly meeting, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees provided an update on their search for a building and reported that the fund’s annual valuation was one of the strongest in more than a decade.
In its search for a building, TRS is looking at several short- and long-term options in Austin, including renovating its existing Red River St. location, building a new campus to house all its departments, and renewing its lease at 816 Congress, where the Investment Management Division (IMD) employees are now housed. No final decision is expected before July 2021.
An independent actuarial valuation of the TRS pension fund completed Aug. 31, 2020, by Gabriel, Roeder, and Smith (GRS) found that TRS’ annual valuation was one of the strongest for the TRS system in more than a decade. This is good news given the events of the past year and the impact COVID-19 has had on the Texas economy. The TRS pension fund increased by $7.4 billion, from $158 billion to $165.4 billion, between August 2019 and August 2020. The fund also came close to hitting its target rate of return on investments. The projected date for the system to be considered fully funded is 27 years, one year less than previous projections and the lowest since 2007.
The policies and contribution levels put in place by Senate Bill 12 during the 86th legislative session in 2019 are proving to be worth the cost. TRS being actuarially sound will save the state of Texas $87 billion over the long haul. Unfortunately, this does not mean a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is coming this session. Even though the fund is now eligible for one under the state’s constitution, Texas’ budget shortfall makes it unlikely the Legislature will be able to appropriate additional funds to support the benefit increase.
The COVID-19 pandemic has kept healthcare front and center, and TRS-Care is holding its own for now. The fund increased from $1.3 billion to $2 billion. While TRS was able to find some additional savings by changing healthcare providers for the coming year, the Legislature will need to come up with a long-term solution to ensure TRS-Care is able to meet the needs of its members in the future.

Local Leader Spotlight: Nikki Cowart, President of Cy-Fair AFT

With more than 110,000 students, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, nestled in the suburbs of Houston, is the third-largest school district in Texas. In the district, Cy-Fair AFT, the local affiliate of Texas AFT, is the largest, loudest voice for employees.
A diverse union of professional educators, Cy-Fair AFT welcomes as members all non-supervisory employees, including teachers, bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, nurses, and other school support personnel. Cy-Fair AFT consistently strives to raise the standards for all employees and students in the district through local policy and advocacy.
“Members are the union, and nothing happens without involvement,” said Meghan Brannon-Reese, Cy-Fair AFT member and high school English teacher. “It’s especially hard right now, with how much everyone is stretched, but it’s important to support each other and support leadership because ultimately we are a source of strength together. We shouldn’t be afraid to lean on that and use the power of our voice.”
At the helm in this difficult time is Nikki Cowart, president of Cy-Fair AFT.
“Nikki is great at leveraging relationships. She is a peacemaker while also being an enforcer. We have great organizers who consistently show up and push back. We have momentum here,” said Mariah Najmuddin, Cy-Fair AFT member and middle school Spanish teacher. “Cy-Fair has been boots on the ground this year. We had a terrible reopening plan, but our union sued the district, and that is incredibly empowering.”

 


Teacher Appraisal & STAAR Update

Logo for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test

Last week, the Texas Education Agency announced its decision to suspend A-F ratings while continuing to administer the STAAR test. The announcement also indicated potential impacts for teachers whose evaluations are tied to the test. “For those schools that incorporate STAAR results into teacher evaluations, TEA is providing flexibility to allow them to remove that component this school year,” the release stated. Local school boards must first approve these waivers, which would allow districts to waive just student growth requirements or all general teacher appraisal requirements.


Good Bills of the Week: Jessica González Prioritizes Public Educators

Photo of Representative Jessica Gonzalez

This week, Texas AFT celebrates the good work of Dallas sophomore Rep. Jessica Gonzales, who proved a fierce fighter for public education workers in her first session.

González (D-104) filed two pieces of legislation that, if passed during the 87th legislative session, would improve the livelihoods of Texas’ public school teachers and support personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic recession. HB 732 establishes a $15 minimum wage for all employees working in public school districts and open-enrollment charter schools, while HB 733 increases the state’s contributions to the cost of healthcare coverage for school personnel. The bill would create a uniform healthcare coverage plan.

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo issued the following statement in support of the bills: “At a time when school employees are on the front line of a global pandemic, they should not have to worry about the cost of healthcare. But wages have stayed mostly stagnant in Texas, healthcare costs for school employees and retirees have risen, and our teachers and support staff have been left to pick up an increasing share of their own insurance costs. It’s unacceptable. So we are grateful to Rep. Jessica González for trying to ease the burden on our school employees…”


COVID-19 Antibody Testing for Educators

Text says, "Know your antibody status."There’s so much we still don’t understand about COVID-19. Texas CARES aims to discover more about the virus’ antibodies and how they behave in our communities. The project is looking for more volunteers who will receive three free COVID-19 antibody tests over the coming months.
To date, more than 1,800 educators have enrolled in the project. To join them, visit www.texascaresproject.org.
Texas CARES is a collaboration between the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health, the Texas Department of State Health Services, Clinical Pathology Laboratories, and the UT System.

Education Austin Pushes Endorsed Candidates to School Board Victory

Text says, "Congratulations! Trustee-elect Boswell and Trustee-elect Lugo" with photos of each candidate.

This past Tuesday, Noelita Lugo and Lynn Bowsell, local union Education Austin’s endorsed candidates for Austin ISD school board, won their races in a competitive runoff. December runoff elections generally have low turnout, but Education Austin worked hard to get out the vote for Boswell and Lugo, proving once again how powerful our work is.

 
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