Debbie Dehoney doesn’t want to stop teaching. Neither do Cooc Olmstead or Jan Hall. All three Kimberly educators said teaching isn’t just a job to them — it’s their life.
On March 2, Dehoney scooted the child-sized chair she sat on closer to a nearby table, pausing her impassioned conversation about Idaho public schools chief Tom Luna’s education overhaul plan and the struggles teachers endure to instruct students who come to school hungry and dirty.
She lowered her voice, allowing a few tears to creep into her eyes, as she started to talk about why she loves her profession — and the growing financial pressures that will lead her to walk away from it.
Those tear-filled eyes have seen students grow up, surveyed scribbled handwriting and watched as paychecks diminished. Though only 55, she’ll leave it all at the end of the school year, choosing what’s on the table for her early retirement over uncertainty about what the coming years of payment could bring.
“We knew we would never be rich as a teacher, but we knew that in the end we would be able to have a comfortable life,” Dehoney said. “Everyone understood when we started to take cuts, but it’s really hard when things like this happen again and again.”
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Even after Idaho recently eliminated the Early Retirement Incentive Program, which offered financial incentives for teachers who wanted to put down their pencils before retirement age, some teachers are still looking to get out early.
Idaho’s public school teachers become eligible for their full Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI) benefits once they reach the Rule of 90, which adds public employees’ age to their years of public service.
Last year, PERSI reported 787 teachers and education administrators retired — the highest number since the state updated its recording system in 1990.
But will 2011 see another large group of teachers choose to seek the security of what they have now over a shifting public education landscape?
“We knew we would eventually get more pay with more experience,” Dehoney said. “Will teachers leave because of Tom Luna’s plan? Everyone is kind of sitting tight right now. But if those bills pass . . . I think there will be a lot of people leaving because everyone is so discouraged.”
Two of Luna’s three reform bills were signed into law by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on Thursday.
They will limit what Idaho’s teachers union can negotiate with local school districts and tweak the longstanding method of how teachers are paid, adding merit-based pay incentives but also eliminating tenure for new teachers.
Idaho Education Association President Sheri Wood said fears over job and financial security may weigh heavily on teachers who are at or close to the Rule of 90. Many saw their pay reduced last year, after the Legislature allowed school districts to renegotiate teacher contracts to deal with dwindling state and federal education funding.
“There is a great deal of fear out there for teachers who are closer to retirement,” Wood said. “Teachers say that they would really like to teach for a couple more years, but they are scared of what the Legislature will do. And if they continue to cut salaries, teachers think, ‘I may as well get out now, because my retirement will be cut.’”
Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass said the district isn’t expecting an increase in teachers retiring this year, while Buhl School District Superintendent Byron Stutzman said he isn’t sure if it will be an issue, but worries about attracting younger teachers to the Gem State.
“What we are doing to education as a profession isn’t the right direction,” he said. “Kids are going to look at teaching and go the other way. We are leaving teachers very vulnerable right now.”
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Pay for Idaho’s public school teachers is based on a grid that increases a teachers’ yearly salary after he or she reaches certain benchmarks for years of service or continuing education credits earned. The least an Idaho school district can pay a first-year teacher is currently $29,655 per year, though that figure would be restored to $30,000 if the last of Luna’s reform bills is signed into law.
School districts can choose to pay their employees more than the state grid dictates, but Dehoney said the system is less than ideal. For example, based solely on the state grid, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree and teaching certificate wouldn’t be eligible for a raise until he or she put in eight years of service without gaining more education.
The years of service required reduce when teachers earn ongoing education credits, but Dehoney said that cost usually is paid out of teachers’ own pockets. And when it goes into effect in 2012, the much discussed pay-for-performance aspect of Luna’s plan won’t apply to everyone. Earning the bonuses will be more difficult for new teachers who can’t take on leadership roles until later in their careers, according to Stutzman.
As for older educators, Dehoney said those she works with at Kimberly Elementary School have taken on second jobs just to get bills paid.
Dehoney has taken on two jobs in addition to her full-time second-grade teaching position. After school she works at Twin Falls-based Alliance Family Services in psychosocial rehabilitation services, and teaches English as Second Language through the College of Southern Idaho two nights a week.
At age 55, she still has a year before she reaches the Rule of 90, but she said that won’t affect her decision to retire and apply for a job at a private school.
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Retirement from public education is a now lifeline for the three Kimberly women.
“I felt if I was cut anymore I couldn’t live,” said Olmstead, who retired last year and is now teaching part-time. “For me, the decision to retire was a financial one. So I am going to draw retirement and go teach somewhere else.”
For her, “somewhere else” is Kyrgyzstan on a full-time teaching salary for 10 months. Olmstead reached her Rule of 90 last June. She was among the last Idaho educators who were able to cash in on the early retirement incentive, which gives teachers a bonus for retiring early and costs the state around $4 million every year, according to Luna spokeswoman Melissa McGrath.
In 1996, ERIP was put in place and almost 3,000 teachers have taken advantage of the incentive bonus money, but after the passage of Luna’s Senate Bill 1108, the opportunity to get out with a little extra cash was eliminated. McGrath said the estimated $4 million in state funding saved can be used to benefit students rather than their retiring teachers, although Wood said the IEA has numbers that proves that is untrue in the long run. Wood said ERIP was beneficial for women who took time off from teaching to raise children and couldn’t reach the Rule of 90 until they hit their 80s.
Last spring was the final chance for teachers to apply for the money and 202 teachers will be paid the bonus this year.
And now the question remains — will teachers still retire early if that benefit isn’t available? Dehoney and Hall gave a resounding yes.
“If early incentive is taken away it won’t play a role,” Hall said. “I hate to place money as the reason I’m leaving. Our experience as older teachers is invaluable. I think the intent was to get weaker teachers out but I think it’s the strong ones that will be leaving.”
Dehoney and Hall are both leaving the system before their time is up, opting for early retirement.
Dehoney said she will feel more comfortable when her retirement is locked in and she knows she can count on it. The other part of the equation is the recent years of hardship in education. Teachers have seen their salaries spiral downward, and Hall, 56, said the sacrifice she has made in the name of education is turning into a long list of unpaid efforts.
“I love to teach. I want to teach but I cannot do one more bandwagon year,” she said. “Losing days has broken my heart, and my perspective is that those who did the most got the biggest cut.”
Among her activities, Hall volunteers as pep club advisor, mentors for a group called the Mona Foundation and serves on a wellness committee.
Only a year and a half away from reaching the Rule of 90, Hall said she applied for ERIP last year but turned down the bonus of around $17,000 so she could coach and teach this year’s senior class at Kimberly High School. She plans to retire on June 3 and isn’t sure what the future will hold.
The three teachers all acknowledged that they didn’t choose teaching for the salary but for the love of instruction and nurture. However, they point out, they assumed they would make the same salary or get a raise as their careers advanced, not watch as their compensation shuffled backward.
Olmstead said she worries about good teachers leaving Idaho and the ones who stay in the system losing their creativity as they teach toward preparing students for standardized tests.
“When they talk about bringing in the best and brightest teachers, I think the best and the brightest are leaving because (the state) doesn’t take care of those at the end of the salary,” she said. “It’s really sad.”
Amy Huddleston may be reached at email@example.com or 735-3204.