She said she was amazed when one child — a boy who was notorious for showing no emotion — looked up at her with tear-soaked eyes and said, “Oh no.”
“That got me,” Sims said.
Sims has been a teacher for 27 years, 24 of them spent at Oakman Elementary. Though she was planning on leaving at the end of the school year, she said she had no choice but to retire early.
“That decision was made for me,” she said.
Sims is one of around 20 education employees — seven of them teachers — in the county that retired Dec. 1 to prevent a sharp increase in their health insurance premiums.
Like many teachers throughout the state, Sims’s health insurance premiums would have almost doubled if she had decided to finish out the year.
During the 2011 Legislative Session, Alabama lawmakers voted for the rate hikes in an effort to balance the state education budget.
According to the Associated Press, the Alabama Education Association and others had predicted that more than 1,000 teachers would retire. However, final numbers compiled by the state pension system show 466 teachers will leave their classrooms, part of 1,182 total K-12 retirees.
Each of Walker County’s representatives voted for the measure raising the health premiums saying it was unfortunate but necessary for the financial stability of state workers’ benefits program.
“We looked at the numbers, and we couldn’t sustain what we were paying,” said Rep. Richard Baughn R-Lynn.
The lawmakers said the state is paying around $800 a month for the health insurance plan of each worker while the employee contributes $15 a month for individual coverage and around $120 a month for family coverage. However, over the next five years, many teachers will see their contributions increase to around $300 a month.
Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said state employees deserve to have great benefits and they still do. But with sky-rocketing healthcare costs, Alabama lawmakers had little choice but to raise the rates.
Rep. Bill Roberts, R-Jasper, said that before he voted on the measure, he was handed a letter from the State Employees Insurance Board urging him to support the bill to keep the state’s benefits system solvent.
Butch Sargent, a local Uniserv director with the AEA, said teachers are outraged the cut off point for the premium increases did not come at the end of the year. Most the teachers, he said, are concerned that the change will disrupt their students’ learning.
Though educators are not happy about the increases, Sargent said the action would have been more palatable had lawmakers assigned July 1 as the cut-off date.
The governor had committed to a special session to move the cut-off date as well as discuss Jefferson County’s financial problems. However, the session never materialized because Jefferson county representatives couldn’t come to a consensus about a course of action for the county.
Roberts, Reed and Baughn said that, if the special session would have been possible, they would have voted for an amendment allowing teachers to finish out the year.
Sims said, regardless of the cause of the mishap, she believes the cut-off date is ridiculous.
“I’m a good teacher, and I feel like I should be able to finish out the year,” she said.
When asked if she enjoyed working at Oakman Elementary, Sims responded, “Did you not hear me say I’ve worked here for 24 years.”
She said the faculty and staff of Oakman Elementary are much more than co-workers.
“I’ve been through some things and this community has backed me up,” she said.
Sims was diagnosed with cancer shortly after Christmas and went through three months of chemotherapy. She said her night-stand at home holds 134 get-well cards she received during that time, most of them from teachers, students and parents from Oakman Elementary.
Robin Tingle, a reading coach at Oakman Elementary and co-worker of Sims, said administrators will have a hard time finding a replacement.
“Pam Sims is one of those educators who not only teaches subjects but uses every opportunity as a teachable moment to prepare her students to be successful now and in the future,” she said.
Dennis Willingham, principal at Oakman Elementary, said Sims’ absence will impact many children at the school.
“This is an example of an excellent instructor, loved by all, who is one of the cornerstones of Oakman Elementary being forced to leave her children in the middle of the year,” he said.