Throughout a 31-year career in education, Nancy Byler of Early watched out for the best interests of children in the public schools where she taught. Now, in retirement, she’s watching out for the best interests of Texans on the opposite end of the age spectrum — senior citizens.
Byler serves as first vice president for the Texas Retired Teachers Association, and in July was elected Speaker for the Texas Silver Haired Legislature. She’s simultaneously risen to key leadership positions in separate state organizations with interests that often overlap.
“We’re keeping the public, seniors especially, educated with what is going on in our state,” Byler said last week. “Basically, the two organizations want the same thing, except the retired teachers association is a more targeted group. The TSHL deals with all senior citizen issues, while the TRTA handles issues that face public school retirees, whether they are teachers, custodians or administrators.”
After retiring from her teaching career — all in Brown County schools with the last 21 years at the Coggin Elementary and Intermediate campuses in Brownwood — Byler became involved in the Texas Retired Teachers Association.
“My last day teaching at school was on a Saturday, and I attended the district meeting for TRTA the next Tuesday,” Byler said.
She held a number of offices in the Brown County Retired Teachers organization before becoming its president, then served as president of District XV, chairman of the state TRTA Health Care Committee, recorder and chair for the district president’s council, and second vice president of the state organization. Now as first vice president, she plans next year to seek the president’s position.
About eight years ago, Byler received a phone call asking her if she would be interested in serving as the West Central Texas Brownwood District representative in the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature. She decided she was, after first studying its purposes and goals, which include serving as a non-partisan forum for older Texans to discuss senior citizen issues and establish legislature priorities for the Texas Legislature to consider.
Byler is now in her fourth two-year term. The district including Brown County has five representatives, with two from Abilene, and one each from Cisco and Rochester. While representatives tend to focus on the immediate areas around their hometowns, they move freely inside and outside their districts listening to constituents, presenting programs and discussing issues.
“The issues are important,” Byler said, because elderly voters might support for a candidate because a polite, clean-cut young person knocked on their front door to hand out flyers. “Their appearance might impress them, but they don’t find out where a candidate stands on issues. I’ve talked to people who are surprised that those young people are campaign workers who are getting paid.”
The Silver-Haired Legislature’s stated mission is to promote good government for all Texans by directly involving senior citizens in the law-making process. The organization is modeled after the Texas Legislature, so Byler’s election to the office of Speaker gives her significant authority in the policy-proposal process. Her role is to preside at all sessions, call any special sessions requested to the executive committee by at least 10 members, sign all legal documents, prepare the agenda for all sessions and committee meetings, appoint the editor of the TSHL newsletter, and appoint the chairs of administrative committees with approval of officers.
“Anyone can run to be a representative,” Byler said, “but you need to know that there is no pay, and you cover your own expenses. The only expenses that are paid are for an orientation held every two years.” Senior citizens within the district vote on the candidates. In Brown County, that has been done at the Brownwood Senior Citizens Center, but voters are not required to be active in its program to participate.
The TSHL Foundation, created in 1986 as a non-profit 501(c)(3) agency, raises funds to support the Silver-Haired Legislature, but most resources continue to come from individual members who finance their own travel and lodging expenses. Sponsors are allowed to assist financially, but otherwise it’s a completely volunteer agency with no paid staff and no office.
Locally, Byler was an advocate for a tax freeze for Brown County seniors in four taxing entities. The tax freeze was accomplished through a petition and election process, which won approval by 95 percent of voters in November 2014.
Since the TSHL was authorized by the Texas Legislature in 1985 under Gov. Mark White, some of the policy issues addressed by the agency that have become law involve tax freezes for elderly and disabled homeowners, creating the Silver Alert system for missing seniors, establishing certain grandparents’ rights, eliminating use of eminent domain for private gain, criminal background checks for employees and applicants at special care facilities, increasing to $60 the personal needs allowance for nursing home residents, and establishing penalties for theft of a military grave marker.
Among the issues the TSHL is currently considering are proposals that would broaden the Silver Alert program, and expand grandparents’ rights.
“The Silver Alert can be issued only when the missing person is 65 or older and has been diagnosed with dementia,” Byler said. “What happens if a healthy person gets lost while driving and is stranded in a remote location? We have had a situation right here in recent years that shows why the Silver Alert needs to be expanded.”
Byler transitioned seamlessly to discussing her volunteer work with the Texas Retired Teachers Association, perhaps because so many of the issues considered by the two organizations run parallel. But with TRTA, she also finds herself dealing not only with concerns of school retirees, but also with matters that affect public school employees who are still on the job. Those include issues like cost-of-living increases and the retirement system’s defined benefit plan.
“We’re not working just for retirees, but also for the profession of education and those still working,” Byler said. “We work hand-in-hand with other active public school employees.”
“The (Texas Retirement System) annuity is guaranteed in the Texas Constitution, but insurance isn’t, so insurance is a big issue. We have to hang on to insurance at an affordable price.” Until 1985, retirees had no group coverage plan. The Texas Legislature determines benefits at each session, and it has no continuing obligation to provide them.
Keeping the TRS adequately funded under its defined benefit plan is also a concern.
“Ninety-five percent of public school retirees do not draw Social Security, because their school districts choose not to participate,” Byler said. “Brownwood school retirees are OK, because the district does have Social Security, but most others don’t. So the retirement plan is even more important for retired school employees.” According to the Association of Texas Professional Educators, Brownwood is one of only 17 Texas school districts that participate in Social Security for all its employees. Thirty-one additional districts participate but cover just auxiliary or part-time employees.
“One in every 20 Texans is touched by the TRS, as a retiree, spouse or dependent,” Byler said.
State TRTA officers make four spring and four fall visits to various district meetings in the state, and travel to other meetings by invitation.
“I love every minute of it,” Byler said of her busy schedule with the two organizations. “I’ve met so many neat people.”
Her husband, Rogers, is supportive of her extensive volunteer efforts, Byler said. They have three children, five grandchildren and one great-grandson. She is also a member of the Early Economic Development Board and president of the May High School Ex-Student Association. She served six years as Regent for the Mary Garland Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, and on the Salvation Army board of directors and in the Brownwood Woman’s Club.
Byler said her dual roles can create moments of confusion when she meets state officials who have have talked with her previously in one capacity, and then see her in the other. That is quickly cleared up with a brief explanation.
“The two organizations really want the same thing,” Byler explains.
The current two-year cycle for the Silver-Haired Legislature began at the start of 2015 when candidates in the 28 statewide districts announced their candidacies and elections were held. Orientation sessions were held in Austin for four days in July, and the Silver-Haired Legislature will meet for five days in April 2016.
Four executive meetings are held each year, and one scheduled this week will include a mock town-hall meeting on Monday to explore current issues.
“The last such meeting was very productive,” Byler said. “We’ve got so much talent in our state, in all areas of life, among Texans age 60 and over.”
That constituency numbers 4.1 million in Texas, according to TSHL literature. The TSHL Online Academy offers aging courses as well as a network for professional people and members of the public at www.tshlacademy.org. The curriculum includes topics like realities of the third age, living a good third age, advocacy for older Texans, and a TSHL call for leadership. Various online publications are also available at www.txshl.org.