How Retired Rural Teachers Cope When Life In The Country Isn’t Necessarily Cheaper

Retirement can be daunting for those who taught in lower-paying rural school districts, especially when they face medical issues.

By Scott MorganJanuary 31, 2019 11:57 am

How comfortable Texas teachers are in retirement depends a lot on where they taught.

For teachers who spent long careers in urban or suburban districts, it’s not bad – especially if they take those pension checks and move out to the countryside.

But for teachers who spent their careers in lower-paying rural school districts, retirement can be daunting. Especially at a time of life when medical bills start piling up, and in a setting where many amenities are a long drive from home.

Some numbers

Figuring out what a retired Texas public school teacher earns in monthly benefits takes a little math. It’s a formula that factors in years of service, time spent in the classroom every year, and the average of a teacher’s five highest-earning salary years.

Swirl that all up and you get a number that’s generally around 70 percent of that five-year-high average. For Texas teachers, whose average pay in 2016-17 was $55,743, according to the National Education Association, an annual pension for a 20-year career would be a little north of $36,000 a year – which is a nice $3,000 or so a month.

That’s if you teach for two decades, though. It’s also the statewide average, meaning there are higher salaries and lower salaries, depending on the district.

Salaries in the mid-$50,000s or more aren’t uncommon. But rural district teachers often make 20 percent less than their counterparts in urban and suburban.

For example, in the Cooper ISD, in Delta County – a tiny triangle of almost 5,300 residents in Northeast Texas – the average teacher pay in 2016-17 was $43,720. That average was barely above $40,000 for teachers in their first 10 years. According to the NEA, teachers’ careers, on average, last 14 years. More than a third last fewer than 10.

In Hopkins and Rains counties, a pair of rural counties about an hour northeast of Dallas, retired teachers are pulling in an average of $1,850 a month, according to the Hopkins-Rains Retired Teachers Association, or HRRTA.

But again, that’s the average. Barbara Williams, a retired rural teacher who has served as local secretary for the HRRTA, says this number skews higher because a lot of teachers who retired, then moved to Hopkins and Rains counties.

“I personally know of many metropolitan retirees who have moved out here and they’re drawing a very high salary because their salary when they were teaching in that metropolitan area was higher,” she says.

Most of the retired rural teachers she knows draw a little more than $1,000 a month in pension benefits. There are about 2,500 retired teachers living in Hopkins and Rains counties.

The bucolic price tag

Rural life has its perks. Generally, it’s quieter than suburban life, and it’s definitely less congested than city living.

But one thing it’s not, exactly, is cheaper. At least, not dollar-for-dollar. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last looked at urban expenditure versus rural expenditure in 2011 and found that while urban households spend about 18 percent more over the course of a year, urban households also generate 32 percent more money.

The BLS study also found that rural households spend more on food at home (as opposed to dining out) than urban households and more on healthcare and transportation.

That’s the thing about quiet country living. It’s quiet for a few reasons, not the least of which is because everything is far away from everything else. Rural residents often drive a lot farther to get to a store or to the doctor’s office, simply because geography dictates it.

Those costs and distances add up for retirees on a fixed income – one, by the way, that hasn’t gone up for most retired teachers in Texas since the first George W. Bush administration. And, says HRRTA President Tommy Long, it happens at a time of life when people are in greater need of medical care.

People in their 60s, Long says, “are beginning to have health issues in a lot of cases. Their knees need replacing, or just cognitive things they have to be concerned about.”

Especially as rural hospitals and medical centers continue to close at a pretty alarming speed – fun fact, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina, Texas has seen more rural hospitals close in the past few years than any other state – retirees living in rural communities often need to drive greater distances to see medical providers, particularly specialists.

“Sometimes you’re going to drive a couple hours to find a specialist,” says Michael Lee, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools. Lee and his wife live in the Panhandle, and he says that getting to specialists in Amarillo usually takes two hours each way. Which means a lot of gas money, maybe something to eat while they’re out so long, and medical bills that do not give a discount for people living on a retired rural teacher’s salary.

In other words, Lee says, the bills aren’t smaller just because one makes less, which can be a problem for older retired teachers who find themselves “kind of stuck” in communities teachers might not have any other real ties to, and where loneliness and isolation catch up to residents fast.

The legislature

This year, lawmakers are paying the most attention to school financing and property taxes. But they’re also considering the Texas Employees’ Retirement System Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

This year, at least a dozen bills in the Texas House and Senate (most are sister bills) are looking into what to do about TRS, from giving retired teachers a cost of living increase to a looming $238 million shortfall in the system itself.

That’s actually getting off light, too. Before the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, state lawmakers originally anticipated a $400 million shortfall in TRS by 2021. That number was lowered in the fall, but still represents a problem that state lawmakers need to solve – TRS is badly underfunded.

Why? The short-answer reason is that it’s been badly managed has yielded poor returns for decades. What was intended to show a 12 percent yield ended up barely cracking 7 percent. For about 20 years. And for the past decade the return has been below 6 percent.

Like in many legislative sessions past, TRS is asking state lawmakers for more money to help float pensions. Typically, such plans involve tapping into the state’s economic stabilization fund, more colloquially known as the “rainy day fund.” State Sen. Bob Hall (R-2nd), who sits on the Senate Education Committee, wants to see another approach.

“I think it can be done without the rainy day fund,” Hall says. The money can be made available without using it.”

Chiefly, Hall, one of the more vocal proponents of rewriting what Texas spends its money on, wants lawmakers to set Texas’ spending priorities straight.

“We spend a lot of money now on things the government, the state has no business spending money on,” he says. Subsidies to corporations for setting up shop here and money to help film crews make movies in the state are two of the types of funds Hall says need to go away. “We need to take a look at our priorities and get the priorities correct on what we should be spending money on.”

And that would be teachers, whom Hall calls “some of the most important public servants we have in the state.”

One of the bills filed this year, by State Sen. Jose Menendez (D-26th), would change the Texas constitutional to set minimum state contributions to the Texas Employees Retirement System and the Teacher Retirement System.

But in a legislature controlled by conservatives likely to balk at the idea of using the state constitution to dictate financial contributions, that could be a tall order.

“I’ve never been a fan of dedicated funds,” Hall says. “We never know from one year to the next what we’re going to have available.”

Which sounds an awful lot like the thoughts that go through retired rural teachers’ minds in Texas.