Overcoming School Access Issues

John Iekel

“We all have the same goal,” said one panelist regarding providing school employees with access to retirement plans and means to save. The panel discussion took place at a Jan. 25 session of the NTSA Summit held Jan. 23-25 in Houston.

Restricted Access

The goal may be shared, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to accomplish. At least that is the experience of Billy Beattie, Director of Business Systems, Payroll and Benefits for the Humble, TX Independent School District. Beattie told attendees that access to school employees on campus “is evolving” but that there is a “chance of a trend toward no access.” They tried to create an access policy, he reported, but there are “lots of issues with having people come on to the campus.”

Robert Young, managing partner of One2One Wealth Strategies, a PlanMember Financial Center in Glendale, AZ and former NTSA President, made a similar observation. “For many years, it’s been hard to have personal contact with administrators,” he noted.

And even if on-campus access were readily available, time is an additional complication. “There’s no free time,” Beattie said, and noted that a lunch event “is not enough time to get the information they need to them.”

That information is sorely needed. At the outset of the session, it was noted that there are $110 billion in 403(b) accounts held by employees in K-12 institutions, but that’s with participation by only 25% of the employees in that sector. Beattie offered a possible explanation, at least in his experience. “Everyone’s confused by 403(b)s, 457s, the whole thing,” he said, adding, “that makes them on guard.” In addition, Beattie said, “if anything goes wrong with the process of investigating and signing up, they may just give up.”


That means Beattie needs to get staff to experts who can answer their questions through other means. “We’ve got a lot of moving parts” in managing time and vendors’ access to employees, he said, but “by working together with TPAs, agents can come up with an answer to this problem.” Young indicated support for that approach, telling attendees, “you want to work with a partner,” he said, and approach the connection with administrators from the point of view that the employee is the top priority.

“We’re looking for a real partnership to make this work,” Beattie said, encouraging advisors and vendors to do the necessary legwork, such as renting venues, and making it easier for employees to attend sessions and events. 

Travis Munro of Centera Financial in Humble, who works with Beattie on providing retirement benefits to district employees, said, “Billy knows we’re not adversaries.” He advised attendees that they should “be respectful of administrators — they have goals too.”

Overcoming Access Challenges

Beattie said he’s creating a portal that advisors can use to post information that includes links that will provide school employees with access. And they are trying to guide employees as simply as they can through the process.

But they aren’t content to rely only on virtual content — Beattie reports that they also are renting out a civic center so information and sessions are available to employees, but there is no sales pressure. He said he “hopes this will give them a level of comfort.” The most important thin, Beattie said, is getting the employee with an advisor as seamlessly as possible.

Beattie indicated that the maxim that timing is everything holds true in this case. He suggested that there are certain times when it would be especially advantageous for a vendor to try to reach employees in his district: the August benefits fair; October, once the school year has settled into a routine; January, before testing starts; and on teacher in-service days that focus on professional development.

Young reminded attendees to keep in mind that they also are educating school employees as well as administrators. “We don’t look at 403(b)s and 457s as just their retirement, we look at them as an employee benefit,” he said, but noted that both employees and employers see benefits as health care only. Young said that he tries to discuss retirement plans with districts from the perspective of them being an employee benefit program to get the message across.

And there is work to do on the vendor’s end, too, according to Young. “You’re not going to launch an idea until you have a solid product,” he said, adding that it also can be helpful to set up a code of conduct for advisors to follow. Young also stressed that it is important to “minimize the workload” of school district employees and administrators. To that end, he said, it is better to use social media and electronic newsletters to reach them, and not to use mailers and email.

Young’s approach gets results. He told attendees that they found a 50% increase in plan participation with these approaches and practices in place.

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