Maryland's use of retired teachers nears an end

Lawmakers unable to fix abuses, let program die

April 14, 2004|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Maryland's program to help struggling schools by letting them rehire retired teachers and principals will be dropped because House and Senate lawmakers couldn't agree on a way to address concerns that it has been misused.

Although all sides applauded the purpose of the program, legislators seeking to make sure it wasn't abused failed to resolve differences over competing proposals, including one that would have capped the rehired educators' pay.

That means as many as 1,000 retired teachers and principals won't return to their jobs around the state after the school year ends, unless they agree to reduce their pensions or work part time.

"Oh, my heavens," Paula Lawton, director of human resources for the Frederick County schools, said yesterday. "Some of these slots are hard to fill."

The program, which was approved for a four-year run, will expire June 30 because legislators failed to renew it.

Lawmakers, school officials and parents expressed support for trying to restart the program during the General Assembly's next session, but that won't help next school year.

"A lot of kids' and parents' hearts are going to be broken to see some of our best people have to leave," said James R. Sasiadek, school board president in Baltimore County, which has the state's second-highest number of rehires with 159.

Lawmakers began considering reforms late last year, after The Sun reported that districts were rehiring art, gym and music teachers; were rehiring educators to work in high-performing schools; and some were taking home salaries and pensions exceeding $100,000.

Yet the program - and its renewal - enjoyed wide support among legislators who said they simply wanted to make sure it was steering veteran math, science and special education teachers to struggling schools, as intended.

"It was needed, and I really think it should have been looked at in that light," said Del. Norman H. Conway, House Appropriations Committee chairman, who oversees federal programs for the Wicomico County schools.

Conway said the House would submit a bill early next session seeking to restart the program.

Lawmakers said they tried to reach agreement until the General Assembly session ended late Monday, but time ran out.

Senators bristled at a proposed salary cap, which would have prevented the rehires from making a salary that was more than 70 percent of their pay before retirement.

Delegates objected to a separate measure that the Senate added, lessening the penalties on certain disability retirees.

"It's just a sign that the people we send to Annapolis can't get the job done," said Michael Franklin, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County.

Breaking longstanding retirement rules, Maryland's program allowed retired educators to return to their old jobs and collect a regular salary without losing any of their pensions.

In dropping this exception, Maryland might be the first state to buck a national trend of states easing retirement rules to address the teacher shortage.

"I'm surprised at Maryland," said Keith Brainard, research director of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

"The teacher shortage remains an issue and, therefore, some form of return-to-work plan remains a valuable hiring tool."

School systems have been left to scramble to find replacements for the many retired educators likely to depart.

The Prince George's County school system, which employs the most rehired educators with about 300, will rely on more out-of-state recruiting.

Eastern Shore districts might establish a database so they can recruit rehired educators leaving other area systems, who wouldn't face a penalty for returning to a classroom.

"We have shortages in every school system, and it seems likely these shortages will continue," said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, which supported renewal of the program.

Among the rehired teachers who might leave her school system is Louise Friendlich, a first-year rehire who helps teachers and students work with computers at Cedarmere Elementary in Reisterstown three days a week.

Friendlich, who retired after 31 years as an elementary school teacher, says she doesn't plan to return unless the school agrees to let her work two days a week so she can retain her pension.

"This was a win-win situation for the school and for myself," she said. "I'll find something else to do, but it may not be in the Baltimore County schools."

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