Teaching Profession

Wash. State Pension Plan Blamed For Educator Exodus

By Mark Stricherz — June 13, 2001 4 min read
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When he moved to Bend, Ore., last summer, Bob E. Jones became what he jokingly calls a “double dipper.” He dips roughly $50,000 a year from his Washington state pension, because he retired last spring. And he dips another $90,000 annually from his new job as a high school principal in Oregon.

Mr. Jones isn’t the only Washington state retiree who has turned into a prosperous refugee. The superintendent of Oregon’s Bend-Lapine district, Douglas M. Nelson, was hired last summer after retiring from the Evergreen State. So was the incoming personnel director of the 13,000-student district, Bob. H. Widsteen.

The main reason for the influx of Washington state educators isn’t Bend’s resort-town status—it’s the Washington state retirement plan. Because of the plan’s rules, teachers and principals like Mr. Jones face a fairly easy choice when they accrue 30 years of experience: They can retire, collect a yearly pension, and find a new job. Or they can continue working, not collect pension benefits, and actually see their benefits docked when they stop.

With choices like those, it’s little surprise that an estimated half of all educators with 30 years’ experience leave the public schools in Washington state. In a state with a shortage of educators already, the flight of many 50-ish educators is exacerbating the problem further, officials say.

Brian D. Barker, the executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals, said the pension situation has contributed significantly to the state’s rising annual turnover rate among principals and vice principals—estimated to be 20 percent.

Last year, 499 of the 2,700 principal and vice principal positions statewide were available, according to Mr. Barker. He added that the number has risen steadily for the past five years and has contributed to a growing problem of having to hire people “without the depth of experience you’d like to see.”

As a remedy, Washington state legislators have sought, unsuccessfully so far, to allow retired educators to receive pensions while continuing to work in the state. The Senate has twice passed legislation to allow working educators to collect 100 percent of their pensions; the House has voted for 90 percent.

Roots in 1970s

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va., called the state’s retirement system “strange, different.”

Yet it may not be unique. In a survey last year of retirement systems for educators, the Arlington-based Educational Research Service found that seven or eight states had created disincentives for working past a certain point, said Nancy J. Protheroe, the director of special research projects for the research group.

The pension plan Mr. Jones and others belong to was crafted in the 1970s, when Washington state faced a swelling number of baby-boom-age educators and a budget crunch, said Mr. Barker and Mr. Houston. By essentially limiting the number of years educators would work to 30, the state would not have to pay as much money when they retired.

Under the plan, educators hired before 1977 are paid up to 60 percent of the average of their last two years’ salary when they retire. After 30 years on the job, the value of the pension benefits goes down, Mr. Barker said.

In 1987, the Washington state legislature changed the retirement system. Educators must be 65 before they can retire with full pension benefits. Still, for the thousands of baby boomers hired as teachers and principals before 1977, the state faces an almost certain loss of school personnel.

One of those who plan to retire soon is Charlotte A. Carr, 56, the principal at Gault Middle School in the 32,400-student Tacoma district. Her job will be one of many the district must fill next spring. An estimated seven of the district’s 10 middle school principals are expected to retire at that time, officials said.

“There’s really no incentive to go on,” she said. “It’s kind of like I’ve done my 30 years and now it’s time to go.”

At a time when the ranks of principals are thinning, Washington state’s troubles with its pension system highlight the crucial role pensions can play in determining whether administrators stay on the job.

Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va., said pensions rank as the fourth or fifth leading reason for the growing shortage of school leaders.

Washington state’s pension plan “really doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Tirozzi said. “If anything, we need to create more incentives for principals to take these jobs. The situation there is really a disincentive.”

In the past few years, several states have sought to remedy the problem.

Last year, legislators in Kentucky enacted a law to allow retired teachers and administrators to draw their salaries and pensions, provided they work in critical shortage fields, such as special education, and in geographic areas that are hard to staff, said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the education department there.

In Washington state, where the legislature is still in session, many school officials rest their hopes in a bill passed by the Senate last month. An educator with 30 years’ experience would have to retire for a month, but then could be rehired and work an entire school year and receive full pension benefits.

If such a bill were to pass, Ms. Carr said, “maybe I would work a year or two longer.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as Wash. State Pension Plan Blamed For Educator Exodus

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