By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
In some districts, teachers are grasping tightly when a golden handshake is extended. In others, teachers have kept their distance when early retirement incentive packages are dangled in front of them.
While there are no firm numbers on how many teachers have opted to take advantage of early retirement, the trend is definitely on the rise as schools struggle with declining revenues. Even though districts have to shell out initially to pay for buyouts of veteran staff, districts save money over the long haul by hiring new employees with less experience for lesser salaries.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, a staggering 1,360 employees have signed up for early retirement. Under the plan, teachers and counselors receive about 40 percent of their 2009-10 salary over a period of time, along with their normal pension. The move might save some of the 3,500 positions held by United Teachers Los Angeles members at risk of being laid off.
In the San Diego Unified School District, nearly 600 teachers have submitted papers for early retirement under a plan that provides them with one year's salary paid out over a few years, in addition to regular retirement benefits. The district has estimated that replacing veteran teachers with lower-paid, newer teachers would save between $7.6 million and $12.3 million over the next few years.
"The San Diego Education Association values the contributions of our veteran educators, many of whom bargained our first collective bargaining agreements and went out on strikes in 1976 and 1996," says SDEA President Camille Zombro. "But the voluntary layoff of our sisters and brothers through a SERP [Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan] is bittersweet. The loss of our veteran SDEA members is a loss to our union culture and our history."
Some also fear the loss of veteran teachers may have other impacts. Experienced teachers have been counted on traditionally to provide school leadership and to mentor and support new teachers.
"Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment [BTSA] providers are recruited from the ranks of veteran teachers," says Margaret Gaston, executive director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning based in Santa Cruz. "In schools where there has traditionally been a lot of turnover, there has been a concern that there are not enough accomplished veteran teachers to usher novices into the profession."
On the other hand, adds Gaston, if new teachers are being laid off at the same rate as veteran teachers retiring at a particular school site, those who remain have some years of experience and are not as greatly in need of mentoring.
The Santa Ana Unified School District offered an early retirement incentive and 94 teachers accepted. According to Santa Ana Education Association President David Barton, the district is "top-heavy" with older teachers and has mostly younger teachers being pink-slipped. It is hoped the early retirements will help balance things out and allow younger teachers to return in the fall.
Among those who accepted the offer, which includes 70 percent of last year's salary, was Barton, a teacher for 27 years.
"The offer was pretty generous and I'm pretty happy," says Barton. "I'm going to spend a lot of time relaxing and trying not to think about how bad things are going when it comes to public education."
The buyouts are happening at a time when the nation is facing the largest teacher retirement wave in history, with more than 50 percent of teachers over the age of 50, notes the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a Washington-based education advocacy organization. In May, the commission forecast that more than half of today's veteran teachers — 1.7 million — may be gone soon due to retirement, taking with them invaluable experience and expertise.
A glimpse at retirements across the state:
- The Baldwin Park Unified School District offered a one-time early retirement incentive where teachers will receive about $30,000 over a three-year period. Close to 40 teachers signed on. The district is saving so much money that it avoided pink slips and also held a job fair to fill 35 vacated teaching positions.
- In Santa Rosa, 25 teachers braved rain and temperatures that dropped into the 40s to make sure they qualified for the February cutoff date in the district's retirement incentive package, which had a limit of 68 teachers. Under the deal that entitled them to about $45,000 paid over three years, the district hoped to save $1 million. But only 26 people signed up and savings will be much less than that. Dan Evans, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, says that the "silly" limit of 68 teachers caused unnecessary panic among those who took the bait.
- In nearby Windsor, teachers were offered a year's full salary — or $73,000 — for retiring early, paid out over five to 12 years. Thirteen Windsor District Education Association members signed up, which allowed the district to avert layoffs and save 13 jobs.
- More than 60 teachers will retire from the Kern High School District this year, which will allow some pink-slipped teachers to return to the district next year. Normally, about 30 Kern High School Teachers Association members retire annually. Those who opted for earlier departures will receive 70 percent of their final year's salary.
- The Turlock Unified School District rescinded a golden handshake offer because 40 people were needed to volunteer and only 22 signed up. The offer would have included $20,000 in cash or an extra two years' worth of service credit toward retirement.