Windfall for teachers, not needy schools

Retirees: A law seeks to help struggling schools by rewarding educators who return to class. But in many cases, that goal has not been met.

December 01, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

After 30 years with the Baltimore County public schools, Assistant Principal Ted F. Fischer retired Sept. 1, 2001, from Randallstown High.

But it was a short-lived retirement. Three days later, he was rehired at Randallstown, one of the county's underperforming high schools. On paper, Fischer was a math teacher, with a salary of $65,759 a year, plus his annual pension based on his 30 years of service.

But Fischer does not teach any math classes. He spends almost his entire workday devising class schedules for the 2,840 students at Randallstown High and Deer Park Middle Magnet and, occasionally, tutoring students who need extra help.

Fischer, 55, is one example of a well-intentioned, innovative Maryland law that has gone awry.

The law was designed to address a statewide teacher shortage and to strengthen schools that needed the most help by luring distinguished, veteran educators to teach key subjects such as math or science. In return, the educators could draw a salary without sacrificing a penny of their pensions.

But the program in Baltimore County seems primarily to be helping the district's most successful schools. And Maryland's 4-year-old law - one of the first of its kind in the nation - has yielded a financial bonanza for dozens of veteran teachers and administrators, whose total annual incomes approach $100,000 in some cases.

Interviews and public records regarding Baltimore County's 149 rehired educators show that:

More than 71 percent of the educators work in high-ranking schools such as Dumbarton Middle and Loch Raven High in the Towson area.

Most work in subjects such as art, gym and music, which aren't deemed to have critical teacher shortages by state education officials. Only 42 percent teach in math, physics, special education or other areas targeted by the state.

Some, such as Fischer, have little or no classroom responsibility, working primarily as administrators and tutors. One works in guidance and another oversees teacher mentors. One rehired educator tutors a seventh-grader in calculus.

Some have received more pay than the county's rules allow. The salary of an English teacher at one of the county's magnet high schools, for example, was set $4,257 higher than the guidelines dictated.

Now - as Maryland officials consider renewing or broadening the "retire-rehire" law, which is set to expire in June - criticism is developing from many sides.

A state senator who co-sponsored the law says that important safeguards have been stripped away. Union officials say the law is applied so broadly that it is hindering the career advancement of young teachers. Officials in Prince George's County, which has the most rehired educators in Maryland, say the program has proven too expensive. And parents say the students who really need help aren't benefiting.

"It's criminal," says Rodger Janssen, vice president for leadership in the PTA Council for Baltimore County.

"Even under the ideal circumstance, that's double-dipping," he says. "But now, not only are you double-dipping, you're violating the intent of the law and, in some cases, the letter of the law. And we still have students who don't have the supplies they need, things like books."

Baltimore County school officials acknowledge isolated problems regarding the rehired educators, whose annual salaries total $7.3 million, but insist the program largely works as lawmakers intended. Even at the best schools, they say, it's essential to maintaining academic excellence, providing mentors for young teachers and addressing specific needs.

What's more, officials say the program has helped all schools staff hard-to-fill posts in math, science and special education with top-line educators.

"Would we have been able to find replacements? Absolutely. But are we going to be able to match the quality of the instructional experience? Probably not," says Randall D. Grimsley, executive director of human resources.

But county administrators vow to investigate and rectify any problems.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston says he began addressing problems last spring after hearing complaints. He has moved rehired principals to needy schools for the 2003-04 academic year.

"I want this thing followed the way it's supposed to be," he says. "I have always been adamant about following the retire-rehire law in its initial spirit."

A second start

For decades, state pension systems penalized workers returning to their old jobs after retirement. Laws prohibited collecting both a municipal or state salary and full pension.

But as second careers became more common and teacher shortages developed, states began relaxing their laws. Maryland is now one of 33 states that have carved out exceptions for teachers, according to the National Education Association.

For the most part, legislators have carefully crafted the laws to avoid scandal.

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