Cashing in on a life of teaching Retirement: Many teachers in Maryland are taking their pensions early and starting new careers.

December 29, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Clair Phillips has loved his 31 1/2 years in the Baltimore County schools.

At age 55, though, the Overlea High School world history teacher faces the dilemma of thousands of experienced educators: He's eligible for full retirement benefits but considers himself too young to stop working.

So Phillips plans to retire at the end of this semester and expand his fledgling second career at a Dundalk funeral home. "I just figured it's time to move on and try something else. It's a hard decision, but I think it's time."

Throughout area school districts, teachers who were hired to educate the children of the baby boom are reaching retirement age -- statewide, the percentage eligible for full retirement benefits has doubled in the past decade. Now, they're wondering what to do next.

For many, the answer is to cash in on pension benefits -- which can provide about $27,000 annually -- and find a full- or part-time job to supplement that income.

Anne Thiessen, 55, retired in 1994 as a first-grade teacher at Edmondson Heights Elementary School in Baltimore County. "I wanted to leave while I still enjoyed going to work and not wait until it was past my time and I didn't like it any more."

Now she works part time for the Baltimore Visitors and Convention Bureau and as a part-time "mystery shopper," visiting stores and reporting back on the quality of customer service. "I'm making extra money, but I have flexibility with my time that I never had as a teacher."

School administrators don't know how many teachers retire and then find other jobs. Neither school districts nor teachers' unions keep records of what retirees are doing. Most offer little in the way of post-retirement career counseling, focusing retirement planning sessions on such areas as benefits, health insurance and Social Security.

A 1994 survey by the National Education Association of its retired members in 30 states found that 8 percent were working 20 or more hours per week. But most educators agree that the proportion of recent retirees who have full-time jobs is much higher than 8 percent -- and is likely to grow as more teachers hired during the boom years of the 1960s retire in their early 50s.

Like police officers, firefighters and military personnel, teachers are eligible for full retirement benefits after a specified period of service rather than at a particular age. For educators in the state retirement system, that period is 30 years.

Within the next five years, more than one in five teachers in Maryland will have completed 30 years of service, according to the most recent survey by the Maryland State Department of Education. That's more than twice the percentage of a decade ago.

"We hired a lot of teachers in the 1960s and early 1970s," said David Lombardo, who oversees human resources in the Anne Arundel County schools. "Now, we're expecting more and more of them to start retiring."

That will leave Lombardo and other area school officials to worry about filling the expected teacher openings -- particularly in such hard-to-find areas as special education, science and math. Meanwhile, the educators who find themselves approaching retirement age face a simpler question: what to do afterward.

Some, such as Sharon Pound, retire and go back into teaching. The Catonsville resident retired last spring as a first-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in the county and began teaching first-graders this fall at St. William of York School in Baltimore.

"I loved my 33 years, but I wanted to try teaching for a few years in a different system," said Pound, 55, who also works part-time some evenings at a nearby funeral home. "It was real hard to leave, but I think it was worth giving myself a change."

Others use their "retirement" as a chance to begin a new career.

Bernard Bondroff retired in 1993 after 30 years in the Baltimore County schools, having held a range of jobs from elementary teacher to supervisor of pupil personnel workers.

Bondroff, 55, who lives in Owings Mills, spent three years working for Maryland New Directions Inc., a nonprofit career counseling service, and now works for VALIC, the nation's largest provider of retirement plans for public school employees.

"My plans were never that I was going to retire at exactly 30 years, but that's how things worked out," Bondroff said. "It's been exciting to try something different."

Bondroff also got a quick lesson about how well-prepared educators are for the rest of the working world. He had to take classes and obtain financial licenses to work for VALIC -- and even had to learn to use a portable computer.

"I had never even learned how to type. In the school system, I either wrote things out or had secretaries type them," he said. "Now, I had to learn a computer, because that's the way of the business world."

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