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Published in Print: March 1, 2004, as Pension Tension

Pension Tension

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Retire/rehire laws have lured thousands of experienced teachers back to school, but at a price.

After 30 years in the classroom, Baltimore County science teacher John Lindberg was ready to retire in 2001. But when the then-51-year-old took a serious look at his finances, he realized that, at less than $40,000, his pension would hardly cover his mortgage and living expenses. He briefly romanticized about "doing something completely different" to supplement his retirement income, but his principal urged him to reconsider education. Just two years earlier, Maryland had passed a law allowing retired teachers to collect their full pensions if they returned to regular salaried teaching in a public school. When Lindberg's salary, supplemental pay, and pension were combined, his annual income totaled $102,000.

So that spring, with the clock ticking on his teaching career, Lindberg attended a county schools job fair, alongside many candidates looking for their first jobs. With his years of experience—and Maryland's severe teacher shortage—he had his pick of schools. But the job he chose—chair of the science department and teacher of three forensics courses—was at a familiar place: the school he was supposed to be leaving, Loch Raven High School in Baltimore.

It would seem to be a winning combination: A school in a state that needs teachers finds an experienced candidate, and a veteran educator is rewarded with a 57 percent increase in income. Since Lindberg's base salary was reduced from $65,000 to $57,000 as part of the arrangement, the district saves money as well. This past summer, Maryland schools filled about 1,000 of 7,000 vacancies with credentialed senior teachers attracted by this very proposition. These educators are the sort of qualified teachers that the No Child Left Behind Act is demanding schools hire, yet are usually the hardest to find, says Keith Harmeyer, principal of Loch Raven High. "If you have been to a job fair, you know it's not easy to hire, in math or science especially," he observes. Since the law went into effect, he's hired eight retired educators to teach AP courses at his school.

The problem? The retire/rehire law was originally designed to funnel experienced teachers into low-performing schools, not places like Loch Raven, one of the country's best public schools. For this and other reasons, the Maryland law has come under fire, and it may be significantly altered or allowed to expire when it comes up for renewal in June—a process that will be keenly watched by educators in the more than 14 states that now have similar retire/rehire laws on the books.

Offering lower salaries and a more limited pension and retirement plan than nearby states, Maryland schools have always had trouble attracting and retaining good teachers, especially in subjects like math and science. In 1999, the Maryland General Assembly passed Senate Bill 15, one of the first laws in the country designed to lure experienced educators out of retirement and into so-called critical subject areas or needy schools with the promise of a combined pension and salary. But given that the teacher shortage afflicted schools of every quality, state education officials declared all schools "needy." Opportunistic Baltimore County officials deemed 34 subject areas "critical," including physical education and art, which typically have two applicants for every job that opens.

While the law has increased the number of qualified teachers in Maryland schools, some say it's done so at the expense of morale. One teacher, who requested anonymity, claims that many of the positions at his school now filled by former retirees were unadvertised "sweetheart deals," given to administrators' favorites. A series of articles in the Baltimore Sun this past fall also alleged that local schools were abusing and misusing the law. Reporter Jonathan Rockoff found one rehired teacher who was tutoring kids rather than teaching, another who spent a lot of her time on bus duty, and an uncertified math teacher who was scheduling students instead of teaching. City school officials acknowledge that the last case was a problem but deny widespread wrongdoing. "Only one case of abuse was cited," says district spokesman Charles Herndon, calling the law "a way to retain our best teachers at a time good teachers are highly sought."

Nevertheless, Mary-Dulany James, a state delegate and early supporter of the bill, argues that schools are not adhering to the spirit of the legislation. "It's been disappointing to see teachers coming back and getting salaries that are not consistent with the scale of their nonretired colleagues. Some are not in critical areas. And we're short on money."

This past winter, state lawmakers held hearings to discuss what to do with the law when it comes up for renewal in June. James wants to clarify the legislation to insist that rehired teachers only teach in critical subject areas at low-achieving schools. The local teachers' union is also advising lawmakers to stipulate that positions be advertised and made available only to teachers retired a year or more to avoid charges of nepotism.

While such tweaks may satisfy critics, they could also diminish the effect of the law. If a retired teacher's only option is to work in a struggling school, he or she may decide that it's not worth returning to teaching after all. Lindberg, for example, says thatif he cannot teach at Loch Raven, he may stop teaching for good. He spent eight years at a low-performing middle school earlier in his career, but, he says, "I'm not sure I want to do that at this point." He believes he's more effective at Loch Raven, where he's in the middle of renovating the science department and knows the students well.

In any case, after a lifetime in education, leaving a place he loves for a new school is a move Lindberg doesn't think he should be forced to make. "I have been putting 7 percent of my salary in my pension plan for all of my teaching career," he says. "I have earned it."

—Lavinia Edmunds

Vol. 15, Issue 5, Pages 15-16

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