Championing the way for retired public school employees
By Sonia Duggan
For six years the educated minds and many talents of the Wylie Retired School Employees Association have been making a difference in Wylie and area communities.
The nonprofit not only serves its members by offering monthly luncheons with informational speakers, up-to-date information on benefits, and the opportunity to socialize, it supports retirees as they turn out in force volunteering in schools, nursing homes and community organizations throughout the school year.
Wylie Retired School Employees (WRSE) is a service and action organization for all public school and higher education retirees. Affiliated with the Texas Retired Teachers
Association (TRTA), the group works with TRTA to improve and protect the retirement benefits of all Texas public school employees.
The group was officially established in 2012 as a local unit of Texas Retired Teachers Association by a group of 13 Wylie ISD retired employees and two TRTA board members. The first meeting, attended by 37 charter members of the WRSE, established a board, bylaws, meeting dates, dues and a plan for the future.
Current WRSE President Shirley Jones is a seasoned communicator and leader. In her last year of a two-year term, Jones has established a strong team to help her achieve a long list of goals.
As the former Assistant Superintendent of Personnel for Marshall ISD, Jones moved to Wylie 10 years ago after retiring from a 40-year career in education.
Jones said the day she received a postcard in the mail from WRSE she knew joining would open the door to new friendships. “When I moved here 10 years ago this wonderful group of people brought me in and counted me as one of their own,” she said. “Wylie is my home because of the people here.”
Today, they are 82 members strong and growing. Judy Brewster, 1st Vice President and Membership Chair, was instrumental in the group’s 24 percent increase in membership.
“We won the District 10 award for having the greatest increase this year,” Jones said. “She (Judy) was credited with bringing in more than 19 members this past year and has already recruited five for this coming year.”
They are on target to reach their goal of 100 members by next year. “We have seen a marked increase in monthly meeting attendance as a result of new members and the many activities offered which engage a variety of interests to reach all our members,” Brewster said.
Potential members can join in a number of ways but often someone from WRSE will contact new retirees. “We get a list from the state of people who are considered at-large members and we recruit them,” Jones said. Aside from retired and active public school employees, any person interested in education who wants to be part of a fun and active organization while working to protect children’s rights to a free and public education may be a member of WRSE.
Brewster said in Wylie alone there are 81 at-large education retirees who belong to TRTA but do not currently belong to a local organization. “Our goal this year is to personally contact each of the at-large members and encourage them to join us and enjoy the benefits and fellowship of WRSE,” she said.
Monthly meetings and luncheons give members the opportunity to socialize and hear a speaker.
“It’s important for people to come in, feel welcome, and be a part of contributing something,” Jones said. Meetings are held at the Wylie ISD Assessment Center the second Wednesday starting in September and continue through May. Meetings include one health-related program, informative speakers or entertainment plus a Spring Break field trip. Members work from 10-11:30 a.m. then enjoy lunch and a presentation. Linda Pease is the program chair in charge of speakers. Pease said a few highlights for the upcoming year include Blues guitarist Jackie Payne in September, a political forum in October and Columnist Dave Lieber in February. “The December meeting is an early holiday treat with a performance by one of the high schools’ choral groups and a trip to WHS’s 544 Café for lunch,” Pease said.
The group is grateful for the support from Wylie ISD administration. At the end of the school year Superintendent David Vinson and his staff provide a breakfast for any retiring teachers and the group.
Fundraisers are held throughout the year to help reach club goals. Members held a silent auction before Christmas and a garage sale in the Woodbridge community. Their efforts brought in almost $2,000, and for the first time ever they awarded a $500 scholarship to a WISD graduate planning to pursue a degree in education. Next year, the goal is higher with plans to award two $500 scholarships.
Keeping up with Austin
The average classroom teacher in Texas draws only about $2,035 per month in retirement, and with no Social Security benefits, many have to keep a watchful eye on legislation and how it affects their benefits.
Thankfully, WRSE works with TRTA to protect and improve retirement benefits and keep members informed on issues such as pension and health care. While the organization does not endorse individual candidates, they collect data and lobby on behalf of retired educators and those still working.
One particular challenge is the health insurance program known as TRS-Care that serves more than 260,000 retired Texas educators. Jones said last year their insurance took a big hit. “We still have insurance, but it is not what it was before,” she said. “Over 30,000 retired teachers left TRS insurance. We found out we could get a Plan G for just a few dollars more, and in some cases, it was about the same as what TRS was offering, yet without the extremely high deductibles.”
Every April, retired teachers march on the Austin Capitol wearing their signature red shirts.
The two groups are keeping a watchful eye on Texas lawmakers and special interest groups that want to dismantle the TRS fund, taking it from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Jones said current retired teachers have a contract with the state of Texas that guarantees their annuity but it’s educators in classroom today, and ones retiring shortly, Jones said, who are in jeopardy.
“We can be on the front lines for legislation and for those people who are still in the classrooms,” she said.
Giving back with books, more
With so many educated minds in WRSE it’s no surprise that promoting literacy is a top priority.
Janet McMillen, retired WISD third grade teacher serves as 2nd Vice President and Literacy Co-Chair along with Secretary Kathy Wilbanks. “Literacy is a battle that we have to fight,” McMillen said. Our job is critical as literacy people and promoting that is critical.”
During the school year the group buys books through the scholastic book club and accepts donations of gently used books. The group doubled their efforts to collect books last year and successfully donated one book to every kindergarten student and teacher in the district.
“We had never been able to give one book to every kindergarten student,” McMillen said.
An estimated 1,294 books were distributed with an additional 60 books going to the Collin County Advocacy Center.
In the past, McMillen said they prioritized book-giving according to schools and socioeconomic issues. At the end of each year volunteers call the schools and give the books away. It is a rare treat considering many students don’t have any books for themselves at home.
“We let the kids pick their own books. Selection and ownership is a big deal,” she said. “Being a person who has a literate family, it’s a shock to see a kid grab a book and not let it go.”
The goal of the organization is to be supportive and promote the welfare of retired educators and to also give back to the community in which they live. Volunteering is an important facet of the WRSE. Group members logged over 17,000 volunteer hours in the 2017-18 school year. The volunteer program was extended to four Wylie elementary schools on a regular basis last year. Jones works at Draper Elementary a couple of days a month. “It’s so much fun to walk into the school and feel the enthusiasm of those children as they walk through the halls,” she said.
Last year, second grade teacher Allison Bryant picked up a flyer from the group at the new teacher luncheon. When she reached out to the group three weeks into the semester she didn’t think she would have any luck getting classroom help. That was not the case. Board members Linda Pease and Kathy Wilbanks helped Bryant in her classroom at Dodd Elementary during the ELAR/reading block all year. “I found their (students) reading skills definitely improved,” Bryant said. “Anything the students were struggling with I was able to tell them, and they were able to help.”
Not all the service hours are education related. Last year, a concierge program was initiated for members, driving those in need to doctor’s appointments and pharmacies. Other local nonprofits were served by the group as well. Volunteers logged hours at Coventry Reserve, the Christian Care Center, and church ministries. As a volunteer Wilbanks said she is always blessed to help others, and she does. “That is one way we can give back to this community,” she said.
Membership in WRSE not only helps retirees maintain a social connection, it adds value to their lives.
“We don’t feel like just because we are retired our lives are at an end,” Jones said. “We are well educated. We are committed to children. We understand parents and their needs. We just can’t close the doors on those careers and walk away.”