Early retirement plan faces renewed scrutiny

Critics say the state’s early retirement program for teachers has outlived its purpose — and would squander $3.6 million in 2013-14.

Supporters say the program saves taxpayer money, and provides an important benefit to women who leave the teaching profession for a few years to raise children of their own.

Lawmakers will get to debate the issue for themselves. Again.

Senate Bill 1089, introduced on Monday, would eliminate the early retirement program. Again.

The program was eliminated in 2011, as part of state superintendent Tom Luna’s Students Come First legislation. But with the repeal of Students Come First, the program is back on the books, available to teachers who are 55 to 63 years old.

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Sen. Clifford Bayer, R-Boise

For Boise Republican Sen. Cliff Bayer, one of SB 1089’s co-sponsors, his opposition to the early retirement plan is rooted in the Great Recession. When the state was forced to cut education budgets, the state continued funding the retirement program at the expense of classroom supplies and starting pay for teachers — much to Bayer’s chagrin.

The recession has ended, but Bayer’s opposition to the retirement plan hasn’t softened. Now that the state has experience without an early retirement plan — the time between the passage of Students Come First and the voter repeal — he believes the evidence shows the program doesn’t really work as advertised. It doesn’t encourage older and higher-paid teachers to retire, allowing school districts to stretch personnel budgets by hiring younger teachers.

“It’s really more of a bonus,” Bayer said. “It’s not so much of a decision point.”

The payment varies from $14,000 to $18,000, he said, depending on a teacher’s salary and experience.

Idaho Education Association Executive Director Robin Nettinga is equally convinced the program saves money — and believes her group can prove it in hearings.

The two sides disagree about another fundamental point: the retirement program’s mission.

“The program was originally established in 1996 as a way to encourage the retirement of teachers who did not wish to receive technology training and incorporate technology into instruction,” the bill’s statement of purpose says. “All remaining teachers have long since received this training, and it has been a requirement in Idaho teacher preparation programs for many years.”

Nettinga says the program is important for women who leave the classroom to raise their young children. When these teachers put their careers on hold, they also jeopardize their retirement plans. The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho determines retirement eligibility through the “Rule of 90:” an employee’s age, added to years of service.

Bayer is unconvinced, and says the early retirement program provides a benefit that isn’t offered anywhere else in state government.

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Sen. Russell Fulcher, R-Meridian

Sen. Russell Fulcher, R-Meridian, is co-sponsoring SB 1089, and the bill has other key Republican support. Luna wants the retirement program repealed; indeed, his 2013-14 budget proposes zeroing out funding. House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt also questions the program’s effectiveness. “We have not found there has been a mad rush for the door for that.”