Clear Up Teacher Pension Statute

More than 200 men and women who think of themselves as teachers and are employed as such by the Jefferson County Educational Service Center have been informed that, at least for purposes of planning their retirements, they are not. Because the issue involving them will come up in the future, it is one Ohio legislators should consider.

Instructors who work with the service center’s Virtual Learning Academy are involved. For years, some have been having money withheld from their paychecks so they could participate in the State Teachers Retirement System.

But in 2008, STRS officials decided Virtual Learning Academy instructors are not teachers, as defined for participation in the pension program. They are viewed as independent contractors.

Neither the teachers nor the service center think they should be treated that way. So, after the STRS rejection, a few of the instructors and the service center filed a lawsuit over the matter. A magistrate judge agreed with them, but an appeals court said no. Then, earlier this year, the Ohio Supreme Court – by a narrow 4-3 vote – ruled against the instructors.

As Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote in his dissent, the instructors were employed as teachers, worked as teachers, had money withheld from paychecks for the STRS program, and relied on it in making retirement plans.

But through some quirk of the law, the Virtual Learning Academy instructors will not be treated the same as others who do their teaching in classrooms.

Now, the service center must refund money paid by the instructors to participate in the retirement program.

The line between an employee and a private contractor can be a very fine one – but much of it depends on how the entity paying for service and those providing it view the matter. Again, in this case both the service center and the instructors think of their relationship as employee-employer.

Clearly, state legislators should take a look at the issue. If this is simply a matter of a technicality – a law’s wording not representing legislative intent – the statute should be changed to ensure that in the future, teachers such as those in the Virtual Learning Academy are treated the same as other educators.