NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) - In the midst of a teacher shortage, some Texas school districts say they're having to turn away retired educators who are ready and willing to help.
The pandemic pushed many to retire earlier than they otherwise would have, and some want to return. The Texas Legislature, though, has made that complicated.
"I only retired because of COVID," said Frankie Weathers, who took her first teaching job in 1989. At the start of the pandemic, she was living with her immunocompromised mother, and she felt the risk of bringing the virus home was too great.
With vaccines and treatments now available and her mother living with her sister, Weathers has reconsidered her retirement.
"It was hard because I wasn't ready. It was very abrupt," she said.
She reached out last year to her old district and said she quickly got two job offers from school principals.
"We made it all the way HR, and they're like, we can't hire full time," she recalls.
She called another district in North Texas and said she was told, they weren't hiring retirees either.
Some districts, Weathers discovered, won't even consider a teacher whose officially retired.
For every retiree a district does employ, it has to pay a surcharge to Texas' Teacher Retirement System.
It amounts to 16% of an employee's salary, plus $535 a month if they're on the health plan. So, a teacher making $65,000 a year could cost a district as much as $81,820 a year, a price some say they can't afford.
"The surcharge is a combination of costs that are designed to keep the retirement system whole," said Tim Lee, executive director for the Texas Retired Teachers Association.
Lee says it started about twenty years ago when the average age of teacher retirement fell from 62 to 58.
"In 2005, the legislature looked at what appeared to be a trend of younger folks retiring and immediately returning to work," he said.
That tactic, used in the past by police, politicians, and even former Texas Governor Rick Perry, allows a government employee to simultaneously draw both a salary and pension.
"That difference creates hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in additional cost long term for the retirement system," said Lee.
Lawmakers, in response, created the pension surcharge and a set of rules to encourage school districts to fill positions with teachers still paying into the retirement plan.
"I knew the demand for teachers," said Rushundria Gilbert.
Gilbert returned to work in 2018 after retiring two years earlier to care for her ailing husband. Back then, teachers often paid the surcharge themselves.
"I was willing to pay it if I had to because I knew I was needed," said Gilbert.
To prevent that, Gilbert's district brought her on as a substitute instead, one of the exceptions the system allows.
Then, last year, the Texas Legislature passed a law, clarifying the surcharge is intended as "a burden on the employer… not the retired teacher" and barring districts from passing it on.
Keller, Coppell, Alvarado, Joshua, White Settlement, and Ferris ISDs have confirmed they're among the many districts who currently aren't hiring retirees, though most told CBS 11 they'd like to.
Seven other districts – Dallas, Richardson, Mesquite, Garland, Princeton, Lewisville, and Frisco ISDs – told us they only recently began hiring retirees again because as Mesquite ISD put it: "the extreme circumstances of the teacher shortage have led us to take this step."
Richardson ISD is among those who've chosen to pay the surcharge.
"As a district we've decided it's worth the investment," said Richardson ISD assistant superintendent Dr Chris Goodson. "It's more important to get a quality teacher in the classroom."
Dallas ISD agrees. It's hired both Weathers and Gilbert.
"This makes no sense," said Weathers of making it harder for schools to hire teachers with experience.
When it is the children, she said, who will ultimately pay.
Richardson ISD plans to ask the state legislature to suspend the pension surcharge, a move more than a dozen school districts told CBS 11 they support.
CBS 11 asked every school district in the DFW area if they hire retirees, if they'd recently changed their policy due to the teacher shortage, and whether they support a proposal to lift the surcharge.
Here are their responses:
"No, we do not hire retired teachers for full-time positions," the district wrote in a statement. "We would be thrilled if TRS suspended the surcharge. We certainly would have taken advantage of retired teachers in hiring for this year had it already been done."
The district says in the past it has considered retired teachers for hard-to-fill positions.
"It would be helpful to suspend the TRS surcharge given the teacher's shortage that school districts and the state are facing now," the district wrote.
The district has several retirees currently on staff that it's paying surcharges for, although it didn't hire any this year. That's not solely due to the current surcharges, the district says, but also due to only having one qualified candidate who happened to be a retiree.
"In a time where teachers are so hard to find, the surcharge puts a bigger burden on the districts and their budgets. The surcharge doesn't benefit the district nor the retiree. If the state is truly out to do what is best for students, they would remove this surcharge to allow us to put amazing and experienced educators back in the classroom," wrote superintendent Dr Tonya Knowlton.
The district does not hire retired teachers. It would support lifting the surcharge.
"We are in favor of this change to allow retired teachers to return to the classroom or other district positions if they choose," the district wrote.
The district says it does hire retirees, a policy it adopted in the last school year.
The district said it does hire retirees and recently change its policy on the hiring retirees because of the teacher shortage.
"The decision to hire a retiree depends on the specific needs of the school or department hiring and whether a retiree is the best fit to fulfill that need," read a statement from the district.
"In the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a change that made rehiring retirees significantly more expensive for school districts. Given the labor shortage (for all positions, not just teachers), suspending the surcharge would be in the best interest of Frisco ISD and public school districts across the state. FISD would support its removal or suspension."
Grand Prairie ISD
"We hire retired teachers for critical shortage or hard-to-fill areas to address the academic needs of the district. The vast experience of veteran teachers assists in closing learning gaps and mentoring new teachers," read a statement from the district. "We believe it would provide some relief on the hiring options if the District was not required to pay the surcharge. Also, it would reduce budget expenses."
Grapevine Colleyville ISD
"GCISD has not had a need to hire retired teachers for full-time positions." – Rosemary Gladden, GCISD director of communications
"Joshua ISD has not hired retired teachers in several years because the complications due to reporting requirements with TRS and the TRS Surcharges that are imposed," the district wrote. "As the state starts seeing shortages in teachers, Joshua ISD would consider employing retired teachers if TRS would not impose a surcharge."
"Keller ISD does not have any retired teachers working for us in full-time positions due to the surcharge. While we are currently fully staffed for the 2022-23 school year, KISD would support a surcharge suspension that would give us the ability to select from a larger pool of potential candidates, including retirees, if needed. " – Keller ISD
The district does hire retirees, a policy it hadn't recently changed, although "the consideration of retire-rehire is coming up more often due to the teacher shortage," according to a statement by Krum ISD superintendent Dr. Jason Cochran.
"I believe removing the cost associated with a retiree-rehire would benefit the teacher shortage across the state. Too many scenarios exist statewide in which districts have limited funds and major needs in the area of staff," wrote Cochran.
The district is currently hiring retired teachers for unfilled teaching positions, a recent change it says is due to the teacher shortage.
"In light of the current staffing shortages across the State, we do believe that the State should waive the surcharges that a district must pay. These surcharges place a burden on our budget that would not otherwise be there if it wasn't for the shortage of teachers. This is a decision that could bring an immediate positive impact to our district," read a statement from the district.
Little Elm ISD
"We are open to hiring retirees because of the current teacher shortage crisis," read a response from the district. "We don't have an official position, but are aware that it's a significant financial burden to districts to have to pay the surcharge."
The district does hire retired teachers a new policy due to the teacher shortage.
"In late July, facing a significant number of unfilled teaching positions, our leadership team made the decision to allow campuses to hire retired teachers to fill vacancies. Normally, this would not be a strategy we would pursue, but the extreme circumstances of the teacher shortage have led us to take this step," the district wrote in a statement. "Our district would favor suspension of the surcharge. Doing so would open additional avenues for us to find qualified teachers in what is a very challenging hiring landscape."
"We try note to (hire retirees) because of the surcharge," wrote superintendent Kevin Noack. "I believe the surcharge should be suspended with the teacher shortage situation."
The district does hire retirees, a recent change due to the teacher shortage.
"The surcharge makes it more difficult to fill open positions," the district wrote.
Red Oak ISD
"Red Oak ISD does recruit and hire retired teachers to fill both long-term sub and staffing positions as a rehire," read a response from the district.
It said the number of retired teachers it's hired has increased the past year.
"We believe that TRS should suspend the surcharge due to the current shortage. This would help place qualified educators in classrooms across the state and not penalize districts who are able to do so."
The district does hire retirees, a recent change to its policy due to the teacher shortage. It also supports suspending the surcharge.
"This is a specific part of our trustees' recently-adopted legislative priorities for the current school year," wrote the district spokesperson Tim Clark.
You can find those priorities here.
White Settlement ISD
The district no longer hires retired teachers.
"The legislature changed the law, and schools could no longer work with the employee to pay part of the surcharge. Previously, employees reduced their salary so the surcharges were not below the state base for the pay step. It's now very costly to school districts so no other full-time employees have been hired," the district wrote CBS 11. "We'd love for them to discontinue the surcharge due to the staffing shortages all schools are facing.
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