Teacher buyouts worry parents

There's fear city could lose most-seasoned, their expertise

February 14, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Parents of Baltimore City students expressed concern Monday about the district's plan to buy out up to 750 of its most experienced teachers to mitigate budget shortfalls, saying that the school system could lose valuable expertise and classroom experience.

"I'm a little angry about it because there was no mention about how the educators taking the buyout is going to affect the students," said T.Y. Powell, parent of a sophomore at Polytechnic Institute. "I understand that they are making a business decision, but city school students have suffered long enough because of strictly business decisions."

In addition, experts in teacher quality say the district is using a costly strategy that could push out Baltimore's strongest teachers.

"It's looking at things from purely a financial point of view, rather than what's best for kids," said Emily Cohen, district policy director for the National Council on Teacher Quality. "If you were looking at it from what's good for kids, you would be looking at your workforce and seeing who is the most effective and getting rid of those who are less effective."

The buyout plan, announced by school and Baltimore Teacher Union officials in a letter to educators Friday, will offer teachers with more than 10 years' experience an early-retirement package. The package will pay 75 percent of a teacher's current annual salary into a city school investment plan over a five-year period.

In an example of the package's breakdown, school officials said a teacher in the middle of the salary scale would earn about $60,000 a year. Seventy-five percent of that salary is $45,000; divided by five years, the package would pay out $750 a month.

Besides the monthly payments for five years, those who take the offer will receive their full pension benefits when they reach retirement age. However, they will not receive fringe benefits, such as health insurance. They also cannot return to the system, except as a substitute.

The union supports the buyout, saying that teachers have long inquired about early-retirement options.

Parents believe even the best teachers won't be able to pass up the package, which Cohen called "generous" compared to other districts that typically offer one-time, lump-sum payments.

"The people who take advantage of it first are the people who are one step out the door anyway," said Dennis Moulden, parent of a city student and former president of the school system's Parent Community Advisory Board. "The next wave is going to be the go-getters, the teachers in their prime, who have other options. You're offering them an incentive to leave, when there might not have been one."

It is the first-ever early-retirement incentive plan offered in Baltimore City schools and comes at a time when the system is grappling with a $73 million gap in next year's budget, in addition to more than $15 million in state budget cuts. The first year's savings from the plan could fall between $5 million and $10 million, according to the school system's chief financial officer.

The plan, promoted by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso as a "good business practice," seeks to save costs by encouraging the most expensive teachers, particularly if they are considering leaving the district, to decide early to retire. Teachers would have to decide by April 15, instead of the state's July 15 deadline.

The plan will help avoid layoffs, Alonso said, and also allow officials to better plan for hiring new — and cheaper — teachers in the spring. If fewer than 350 teachers take the offer, the program will be revoked. The most that can participate is 750. Over the past three years, an average of 138 teachers have retired.

"Either we get new revenue, or we creatively find ways to safeguard schools by creating revenue ourselves," Alonso said Monday in response to the criticisms. "This is one of them, and we are not done. As a business measure, over the long run, this allows us to do it without breaching faith with teachers who want to be in our classrooms."

He added that "people who question the business angle have their heads buried in the sand."

Alonso has also emphasized that schools will most likely be affected by the budget shortfalls, leaving principals — who control their budgets — to decide whether they should fund programs or pay teachers.

However, Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union, said the money that principals could save on hiring less-expensive teachers might have to be spent on training and professional development for the new, inexperienced teachers.

He said he supported the buyout, but "this again, is another burden that's put on principals."

"You expect our principals to raise the test scores, but we need quality, experienced teachers to do that," Gittings said.

Cohen added that teacher buyouts usually draw a large number of participants and "can get rid of some dead weight, but it could get rid of people who are really good."

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