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Record year for teachers retiring?

Record year for teachers retiring?
JANA HOLLINGSWORTH jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com

With six weeks remaining in the school year, 44 Duluth school district teachers and administrators have announced their retirements. It’s the highest number in the last five years and among the highest in at least 10 years — and it’s expected to grow.

“This could be a record year,” said Frank Wanner, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers. “It could increase by 50 percent or more.”

The reasons for retirement, Wanner said, are as plentiful as the people saying goodbye.

He cited age, the rebounding economy, stress from large class sizes, and increasing pressure and demands on teachers to boost achievement with fewer resources — often with kids who face more challenges.

“We’re getting close to 20 years of cutbacks,” Wanner said. “Folks are weary, and people have been around for years and years and things don’t get better. They get worse. … This isn’t just Duluth, but it’s reflected here.”

Other reasons for retiring now include the hope of sparing other teachers from layoff, and the ability gained four years ago to transfer money from their “sick bank” to another medical plan, said Tim Sworsky, human resource manager for the district.

He’s also heard teachers talk about classroom size.

“For some of the teachers who have been around a while, the increase in class size was harder for them,” he said.   Class sizes this year reached record highs, with some middle and high school classes clocking in at mid- to upper 40s and some elementary classes with numbers in the mid-30s.

Teachers who began working in the district before 1989 can retire with full benefits when their age plus the number of years they’ve worked in the district equal 90.

Teachers who began working after 1989 receive full benefits at age 66 but can retire as early as 55 with reduced benefits.

Lester Park Elementary first-grade teacher Carol Hubert, 62, chose this year to retire because she hit the “rule of 90” milestone. A cancer survivor, she also wants to spend more time with her grandchildren.

“The timing is right for me to retire,” the 38-year teaching veteran said. “This may provide some younger teachers an opportunity to fulfill their dreams of working with children.”

Five certified staff members, including Principal Bonnie Wolden, are retiring at Lester Park this year. Wolden said it’s usually just one.

“Our teachers have been here many years,” Wolden said. “It’s inevitable.”

Class sizes didn’t contribute to her decision, said Hubert, who works in the biggest elementary school in the district. She said she has networked over the years to bring in volunteer help for her large classes.

“I have been fortunate to have the support of many parents, grandparents and retired colleagues volunteering in my classroom on a daily basis; often three or four a day,” she said. “We just have to be more creative.”

Laura MacArthur Elementary first-grade teacher Joan Nelson has been able to retire for two years.

“The new school revitalized me,” she said, but illness in her family and the loss of her husband led her to her decision. “For years people have said, ‘You’ll know.’ But I will miss it.”

Bruce Holm, 66, teaches seventh-grade social studies at Lincoln Park Middle School. He’s part of abig group of retiring teachers born right after World War II, he said, and he hung on an extra year to teach at the new middle school. His wife, a Homecroft Elementary teacher, also is retiring this year.

“We’ll travel if we can, see a part of the world we’ve been teaching about,” Holm said. “I’ve been driven by a school calendar for 61 years. It’s going to be a little different.”

He said an expected change in curriculum next year also pushed him toward retirement after years of collecting resources for what he teaches now. But mostly, he said, “we are baby boomers, and they are going to be bailing in the next few years.”

Indeed, Sworsky said, the district expects at least a few years of record retirement numbers following this year’s trend. Two years ago he plotted the average age of teachers employed in the district and found it to be between 56 and 60.

Retirements are split half-and-half between elementary and secondary schools. Sworsky said the high number of retirements should mean fewer layoffs and more teachers hired at the elementary level, where enrollment has been high in recent years. Sworsky said it’s still unknown what will happen at the middle and high schools.

Though the district and the teachers union are in contract negotiations that could result in teachers paying more toward their health insurance, Sworsky said he thinks that prospect had little bearing on decisions to retire.

The school administration estimates the district would save $1.23 million a year if employees paid 20 percent of their health insurance premiums for single coverage; they currently pay nothing for single coverage. The district could save another $1.5 million if full health-care benefits were offered only to full- and 0.8-time employees rather than 0.5-time employees in the current contract, which expires June 30.

Another $723,000 could be saved by freezing step and lane increases to teacher salaries. Step increases are given for years of experience, and lane increases are given for higher qualifications.

Since most teachers retiring are at the top of steps and lanes, they wouldn’t be hurt by freezing those increases, Sworsky said.

What could be considered a stressful end to a career for Wolden — helming the 2011 transfer to a new school and losing its new playground to fire in the first month, followed by a year with packed classrooms — wasn’t to her.

“I am not burned out; it’s been a wonderful year,” she said. “I’ve never been a person who counts years or days, because I love what I am doing. This has been a fantastic place.”

Carol Hubert, first-grade teacher at Lester Park Elementary, works with her class Thursday on a spelling lesson. Hubert will retire because she hit the “rule of 90”— age plus years worked. She also wants to spend more time with her family, and she can afford to retire.

Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

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