Baltimore City schools' recent offer of an early retirement package for its most experienced teachers is partly an attempt to cut the expense of having 100 more educators than positions this year, a trend that has cost the district $18 million since 2008.
A corps of surplus teachers — a tactic that in this region is used almost exclusively in Baltimore — is an added expense that school officials said they are now looking to reduce as the district faces a $73 million shortfall in next year's budget and a $15 million cut in state funding.
"The early retirement incentive plan is one of the initiatives that will help offset anticipated future surplus costs," said city schools CEO Andrés Alonso.
The city's surplus pool is expected to cost the district about $5.5 million this year. The district says that the early retirement incentive, which will allow between 350 to 750 teachers to leave the system, will save between $5 million and $10 million during the first year. Teachers who take the package would be paid 75 percent of one year's salary, which would be spread over five years.
Every year since 2008, the district has carried more than 100 surplus teachers — certified teachers who do not have permanent placements at the beginning of each school year but are later assigned to positions such as co-teachers and substitutes.
School officials said that every teacher is used in a school, though the assignments can be fluid and determined on a case-by-case basis.
Over the past three years, the district has been able to avoid layoffs while continuing to hire hundreds of new teachers. But this approach by Alonso to create and save jobs, which also adds a layer of support at schools, has come with a price tag of between $5 million and $6 million a year.
However, the number of teaching positions in the school system is expected to decrease next year, school officials said, and lowering the number of surplus teachers will help prevent other drastic cost-saving measures.
"The buyout is all about the future, when the number of positions is going to be lower," Alonso said.
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said that the number of displaced teachers left in the surplus pool, as well as the cost to carry them, is "very surprising."
"That is a lot of people and money," English said. "But whatever we did with our surplus teachers, we managed to increase our [student] outcomes, so it's money well spent."
Sixty-five percent of the teachers in the current surplus pool have more than 10 years of service, and 76 percent are deemed advanced professional, meaning they have a master's degree or the equivalent, according to statistics from the school system. The early-retirement incentive is being offered to teachers with more than 10 years' experience. They have until April 15 to decide.
English said that in tough economic times, the district is doing the right thing by offering the early-retirement incentive to avoid future surpluses.
But she said she is concerned that the majority of those in the city's surplus pool are veteran teachers with advanced professional degrees, while the district has continued to increase its hiring of alternatively certified teachers through two-year residency programs like Teach For America and the Baltimore City Teaching Residency Programs.
Alternatively certified teachers accounted for half of the new hires last school year, according to data from the school system. Only 7 percent of the surplus pool were "resident teachers."
"That's unfortunate, because you need a mixture in a school," English said. "And for that 65 percent of teachers — this is their career, not just a 'get in for two years and get out.'"
Other school districts in the state, including Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties, reported that they don't have teacher surpluses because they hire based on attrition. And in Howard County, when there is a surplus of teachers because of position shifts, they have to be placed ahead of new hires or teachers returning from extended leave.
Alonso acknowledged that his philosophy of school autonomy has put Baltimore in the costly position of having teachers to spare.
Unlike in neighboring counties where a central office deploys staff and resources, Alonso has transferred that responsibility to principals, who are managing their budgets and hiring their teachers.
In addition, Baltimore is among only a handful of districts in the country that practice mutual consent, meaning that teachers and principals have to agree to the teachers' placements.
"It's notable that they have mutual consent, but because the surplus pool is growing and it's not the same teachers every year, it's a lot of money," said Emily Cohen, researcher for the National Council on Teacher Quality. "It speaks well to Baltimore, but the district can't afford it."