City schools offer teachers an early retirement buyout

Alonso says program will help mitigate budget shortfalls and prevent layoffs

February 13, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore city school officials are encouraging as many as 750 of the city's most experienced teachers to retire by April — a measure that school officials say will help mitigate budget shortfalls and prevent potential layoffs as the system girds for an expected reduction in teaching positions next year.

In a letter sent Friday to 3,200 eligible teachers, the school system outlined details of an early-retirement buyout program that would allow between 350 and 750 teachers with more than 10 years' experience to leave the system and receive 75 percent of their current annual salary over a five-year period. Teachers would need to commit to the plan by April 15.

The buyout measure, unprecedented for Baltimore schools, comes as the system is grappling with a $73 million gap in the fiscal 2012 budget, as well as with a possible $15 million cut in state funding. City schools CEO Andrés Alonso said that "inducing retirements" was a "creative way" for the district to cope with financial uncertainty.

"It's a financial benefit for the district to have more retirements in times when budgets are not increasing," Alonso said in an interview Sunday. "We're not telling anyone to leave. We are saying if you are somebody who is in a position to leave, this is a set of conditions you might want to think about."

The schools chief has said the budget shortfalls would inevitably affect all schools, where principals control their budgets and will undoubtedly face wrenching decisions about whether to keep staff or focus on retaining programs.

"Given the size of the shortfalls and the fact that schools are going to make hard decisions, we anticipate a reduction in the number of positions," Alonso said. "If the number of positions is reduced, there are only two options: surplus or layoffs."

The plan also stands to be an "engine of savings," Alonso said. He pointed to the average $40,000 difference between beginning and veteran teachers' annual salaries. "There's a tremendous gap," he said. "It's a no-brainer."

According to the school district's plan, first-year savings are predicted to be between $5 million and $10 million, depending on how many teachers accept the buyout and how many of those positions are refilled. The buyout payments would be made monthly into an investment plan of each teacher's choice.

Alonso added that it was easy to pitch the idea to the teachers union because "there's nothing in this that isn't in the interest of teachers."

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, agreed, saying that many teachers expressed a desire to have early-retirement incentives negotiated into the union's contract last fall. She said she anticipated that many teachers would take up the early-retirement offer.

The union contract, hailed as one of the most progressive in the country, ties teachers' pay and promotion to student performance. It also created a new career ladder that will allow the district's strongest teachers to make more than $100,000 based on their effectiveness in the classroom.

"I was surprised by the number of people who wanted this, who requested this during negotiations," English said Sunday. "It's a good deal for those who are considering early retirement."

The buyout initiative, with its April 15 deadline, will allow the school system to better prepare for new hiring, Alonso said. Usually, the district must wait until July 15, the state's deadline for teachers to decide whether they will stay on or leave for the upcoming school year. The first drafts of school budgets — blueprints for how principals plan to spend money and staff schools — are due in May.

Especially because the district is experiencing a huge influx of applications for teaching positions — more than double last year's number — the April deadline for early retirements will let the school district know how many teachers it can hire, Alonso and English said.

However, the plan has a safeguard built in so the district does not lose too many educators.

A minimum of 350 teachers must participate in the buyout program, but the total cannot exceed 750, according to the letter sent to teachers last week. If more than 750 teachers want to take part, those with the longest tenure will be given priority. If a large number of teachers within a particular subject area want to participate, the same rule would apply.

If fewer than 350 teachers accept the buyout program, the offer will be revoked, school officials said.

Teachers who accept the buyout will not be able to work in the school system, except as substitute teachers.

Carla McKoy, who has taught in the city for 26 years, had one reaction when she received word of the program: "Wow!"

"I wish I could take advantage of it, but right now I'm not in the position," she said. "I think it's a great opportunity for people who are ready to go."

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