Taking advantage

December 07, 2003

BALTIMORE COUNTY'S school district took a double dip, plus seconds and thirds, when it supplemented its staff with rehired retirees. In other words, it took advantage, according to articles last week by The Sun's Jonathan D. Rockoff.

If the district had assigned most of those valuable veteran educators to classrooms and schools with the greatest need, there would be less cause to question the way it skirted the intent of a law crafted to ease Maryland's teacher shortages.

But here's what happened: 107 of the district's 149 rehired-retired educators are not working in the poorly performing schools and other schools identified by the district as having priority needs. They are in the county's better-off schools.

And only 58 percent teach in math, special education and the other areas identified by the state Department of Education as having shortages. The rest are teaching art, gym, music and other subjects or spending many of their hours on clerical and support duties such as guidance or tutoring.

This can be blamed in part on weaknesses in the law that apparently allow the definition of shortage to be contorted to mean any need. Still, the district's finger-pointing, and proclamations of commitment to the spirit if not the letter of the pension law, are inadequate responses to these revelations.

An audit of the pay and placement of the rehired educators, which Superintendent Joe A. Hairston finally has pledged, is only a start. The right thing to do, in cases of improper assignment, is to shift this pool of talent to the areas of state-designated shortage and the county's lowest-performing schools, as the program intended.

This was not supposed to be a solution for every principal's staffing wish list, or even a soft landing for those seeking a parachute from the classroom after a full career. The beneficiaries were supposed to be the children in schools where the most experienced teachers could make the greatest difference, and classes for which highly qualified teachers are hard to find.

Let's be clear: We don't begrudge a hard-earned salary on top of a pension to those who have the second wind to return to the trenches after retiring, especially if they're willing to motivate and guide children who are struggling in school.

The misused pension law expires in June, and Maryland lawmakers should resist the urge to kiss it goodbye. It can serve a vital function, if strengthened to limit the placement of rehires to specific state-approved target areas of teacher shortages, and to schools identified as poor performers or failing to make adequate yearly progress in specific areas, such as English as a second language.

They could also take up state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick on her offer to provide oversight for the local districts' rehire programs, as apparently some can't resist the temptation to help themselves.

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