The few teachers in the program make more money, while districts cut costs.
By IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
BOARDMAN -- Judith Soccorsi says even when she was a little girl, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. She said one of her favorite activities as a child was to play school with her dolls as her students.
"It's fun, it's not like a job. It's my life's work," said Soccorsi, who has worked as a teacher in the Boardman schools for 40 years.
When the time came for her to retire, Soccorsi said she realized she didn't want to stop teaching.
So she didn't.
Soccorsi is one of 11 retired teachers in the Boardman School District who are continuing to teach under what is commonly called retire-rehire, a practice that some say allows a district to save tens of thousands of dollars.
While many school districts in the Mahoning Valley offer retire-rehire in an effort to save money, few of the teachers in those districts are using it.
"We hoped it would make some sort of a difference, but it hasn't," said Western Reserve Superintendent Charles Swindler.
Retire-rehire typically calls for a school board to rehire a recently retired teacher with decades of experience at the salary of a new teacher. The board also requires a retired teacher to get medical insurance from the State Teachers Retirement System instead of the school district.
School officials say retire-rehire can save their districts thousands of dollars in health-care expenses when compared with the cost of hiring a new teacher to fill a vacancy created by retirement. Officials also said it allows districts to save money on the salary of an experienced teacher.
"You're getting an experienced teacher, and you've got a great savings for the district," said Canfield Superintendent Dante Zambrini.
The teachers, meanwhile, collect their pensions in addition to annual salaries. Both retired teachers and school districts continue to pay into a retirement fund for the teachers after they've been rehired.
"It's a positive for everyone involved," said Mike Schneider, a retire-rehire business teacher at Boardman High School with 39 years of experience. Glenn Patterson, who taught health at Center Middle School in Boardman last year under retire-rehire, added, "it's a two-way thing. I made a little more money, the school saved money."
Under a state law that took effect in September 2002, school boards must give residents an opportunity to comment on the rehiring of a retired teacher. The law requires a school board to publicize and hold a public meeting on rehiring a retired teacher between 15 and 30 days before that teacher would start work and to issue a public notice stating that the teacher will be retiring at least 60 days before the teacher would start work.
It was passed as an amendment to the state's last biennial budget bill. State Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-66th, of Loveland, near Cincinnati, said she sponsored the amendment to give taxpayers the opportunity to express concerns about rehiring retired teachers. "It's the taxpayers that are putting these dollars into the coffers," Schmidt said. "The taxpayer has a right to say, 'You know, I don't like this,' or, 'You know, I don't care.'"
And not everyone agrees with Patterson and Schneider about the financial benefits of retire-rehire. Some teachers union presidents said that teachers find retire-rehire an expensive proposition because of the cost of STRS health insurance.
STRS requires beneficiaries to pay 25 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums, while under most union contracts, teachers pay 10 percent or less of their premiums.
"The rising cost of insurance really kind of hampers the efforts" of school districts to save money through retire-rehire, said Dave Tomaino, president of the Jackson-Milton Educators Association. This is the first year Jackson-Milton has offered retire-rehire for teachers but so far has no takers.
The STRS Internet page shows that the most a retiree who worked at least 30 years will pay for health care premiums is $1,752 each year. STRS does not pay premiums for spouses.
"It's still a pretty good chunk of change for teachers to come up with," Tomaino said.
Don George, president of the Canfield Education Association, added that some teachers feel they need more of a financial incentive than the possibility of being paid the salary of a new teacher to use retire-rehire. Canfield has rehired three retired teachers who are working part time under its "emeritus" program, which had been offered for 10 years.
The district stopped accepting teachers into the part-time emeritus program this year in favor of full-time retire-rehire. No teacher has taken full-time retire-rehire yet.
Herschel Grim, a health and retirement consultant for the Ohio Federation of Teachers, also noted that incentives offered by STRS encourage teachers to work longer before retiring. In 2000, new STRS regulations took effect allowing teachers to increase their annual pensions by 11.5 percent if they waited to retire until after they worked 35 years.
"I think a lot of teachers are waiting until 35 years when they get the bonus from STRS," said Lona Cramer, president of the Teachers of Western Reserve. No teacher in the Western Reserve schools has taken retire-rehire in the four years it has been offered.
"The state has made it so profitable for them to stay that it's hurt us," said Swindler, the Western Reserve superintendent.
Hurting the young
Some school district officials said they're hesitant to allow retire-rehire because it would take a job away from a young teacher who would otherwise be hired to replace a retiree. They noted that the Mahoning Valley needs to focus on stopping the flow of young people out of the area when they graduate from high school or college.
"When it's time to retire and you want to retire, you give the job to someone else," said Springfield Treasurer Ed Sobnosky. "We don't want to have to send [young teachers] to Las Vegas to get a job."
No teacher in the Springfield schools has taken retire-rehire in the four years it has been offered.
Fred Burns, superintendent of Southern schools, added "We have young people who we need to take a look at ... we're limiting their ability to get a job and start a career."
The Southern school board had rehired two retired teachers under retire-rehire; neither is still working for the district, Burns said.
When asked about taking jobs from young people, Patterson, the Boardman health teacher, responded that he didn't understand why teachers should be expected to step aside to make way for new teachers. He stressed that if retire-rehire hadn't been offered, he would have never retired at all, and there would have been no job opening for a younger teacher.
Dania Davis, president of the Lakeview Teachers Association, added the many experienced teachers don't want to retire because they enjoy their job too much. No teacher in Lakeview schools has taken retire-rehire in the three years it has been offered.
"It's a joy to come to work every day," noted Soccorsi.