Schools look to tighten rehiring

Grasmick, lawmakers call for stricter controls on Md. retire-rehire law

`Abuses that embarrass all of us'

Superintendent stresses need to renew legislation

December 02, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Amid reports of abuses, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and legislators called yesterday for tighter restrictions in a state law that allows retired teachers to return to the classroom.

The calls for reform came as legislators leveled a withering attack on Baltimore County's use of the law, which was designed to help struggling schools recruit veteran teachers in key subjects such as math and science. They questioned whether the county schools had subverted the law by applying it to administrators and using it to staff high-performing schools.

"There can't be the abuses that embarrass all of us," Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Republican who co-chairs the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Pensions, said in a 75-minute hearing.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about Baltimore County's program for rehiring retired school teachers incorrectly reported the party affiliation of Del. Mary-Dulany James and Sen. Patrick J. Hogan. They are both Democrats.

The 4-year-old law will expire June 30 unless it is renewed. An effort to address a statewide teacher shortage, it allows teachers who are rehired to collect a full salary on top of their monthly pensions.

But an investigation by The Sun found that Baltimore County's successful schools employ most of the district's 149 rehired teachers, who are taking home as much as $100,000 in salary and pension. And most of the teachers are working in subjects such as art, music and gym that aren't deemed critical by the state.

Moreover, the person who draws up student schedules at one of the county's neediest high schools - an administrator who occasionally tutors - is listed as a retire-rehire math teacher.

"This is what really disturbs me," Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Republican, said of the scheduler. "I thought the idea was rehiring retired teachers to teach."

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore City Democrat, said the Baltimore County schools seemed to have found a "way around" the law. "We thought we had it tight, but we didn't," he said. "So we're going to have to tighten this thing up."

While expressing support for changes, Grasmick also stressed the need to renew the law. She gave as reasons Maryland's perennial teacher shortage and federal demands that "highly qualified" teachers instruct in poor-performing schools.

"We certainly want the law to be used appropriately by all school systems," Grasmick said.

She suggested restricting the benefit to those who work in low-performing schools and teach critical subjects, and said the State Department of Education would be willing to approve the rehiring or placement of retired teachers. Grasmick also expressed support for limiting the salaries of rehired teachers.

"I'd rather see that happen than do away with this program," she said.

She deferred questions about Baltimore County's use of the law to school system administrators, saying, "I don't want to respond for them because they know what they have done."

The county school board's president, James R. Sasiadek, expressed disappointment with some of the reported abuses and said misuse of the law highlighted the need to overhaul the school system's human resources department. But Sasiadek noted that the program was helping many students and said the problems suggested the need for revising the law, not dropping it.

"We support the law," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "When properly used, there are some terrific advantages."

George P. Poff Jr., the school system's lobbyist, and David R. Evans, its acting director of personnel, faced 35 minutes of often-tough questioning from pension committee members.

When Evans said that the district was focusing on rehiring teachers in critical subjects, Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, interrupted him and questioned whether that was really the case.

Hogan, reviewing the school system's assessment of its program, questioned whether all of the retire-rehire teachers were truly teaching: "You say you're hiring this many teachers. Are they really teaching?"

Poff emphasized that Baltimore County relies on the retire-rehire law because it must find more than 1,000 new teachers every summer. And he defended the school system's program, saying teachers either work in a needy school or in a subject area for which it is hard to find candidates.

But the school system has broadened the list of critical shortage areas to include almost every subject taught in schools. So many, in fact, that the head of human resources acknowledged in a recent interview that it wasn't hard for the system to hire in all subjects.

Poff also said the school scheduler, Ted F. Fischer, took on that role after an assistant principal left unexpectedly.

"He is back teaching now," Poff said. But Evans later corrected him, acknowledging that Fischer was tutoring, not teaching.

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