Higher Teacher Pensions Enacted in Md.

By Matthew Mosk and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed into law yesterday a $120 million plan to boost teacher pensions, a move that could help defuse growing unrest among teachers who argued that they had one of the most stingy retirement benefit packages in the nation.

Ehrlich signed that measure and dozens of others at a ceremony in Annapolis, limiting his remarks to legislation he was signing that will order defibrillators into every high school in the state.

Referring to the death of Andrew Helgeson, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring who died at home last May from cardiac arrhythmia, Ehrlich said the law will "make sure events like this never happen again in the state of Maryland." It goes into effect July 1.

The governor's signature on the pension measure marks a major milestone in a four-year push for reform that has been led by the state's 62,000-member teachers union. The Maryland State Teachers Union Web site proclaimed yesterday, "It's the law!"

It was unclear even two weeks ago whether Ehrlich would sign the bill, which passed by wide margins in the Democrat-controlled legislature. He has consistently opposed such costly benefit enhancements.

"We're very pleased that the legislature took the mantle and challenge of finding the funding to make this improvement," said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents more than 10,000 teachers. "This is absolutely essential to the state of Maryland and is critical and essential for the recruitment and retention of teachers in the state."

Cullison said teachers lobbied hard for the legislation.

"This was a tremendous campaign that involved over 100,000 contacts to state legislators over the last four months," she said.

The law, also to take effect July 1, will increase the amount a retired teacher will take home after 30 years of service. Teachers who began their employment in Maryland in 1998 or later and who retire with 30 years of service will see their annual pension jump from 42 percent of their salary to 54 percent.

"It's a first step, but I'm very pleased," said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R). "We've been paying teachers a lousy pension."

Two Montgomery County lawmakers joined the governor as he signed "Andrew's Law" -- the measure requiring that portable defibrillators be available at public high schools.

Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld (D), a sponsor of the bill, said the law will save "countless lives" and stands as a legacy to Helgeson.

His parents, Richard and Rita Helgeson, say that had they had access to a portable defibrillator, they might have been able to save their son's life. After his death, they began their push to have the units placed at schools. Though Andrew, 18, died at home, the Helgesons believed it was important for schools to provide access to the machines.

"This is a bill that's going to help somebody -- we don't know who or when, but we'll all be able to take comfort in the fact that another family won't have to go through what we have experienced," said Andrew's father.

In the Washington region, Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties are placing defibrillators in schools. District officials plan to distribute five defibrillators they received from the fire department.

Several Maryland school systems, including Montgomery's, were opposed to the bill because of concerns about liability. Brian K. Edwards, spokesman for the public school system, noted that educators had been working with county officials on a plan to place the machines at schools and in public buildings and would implement the law as required by the state.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company