Teachers Expect Early-Retirement Offers

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee plans to offer an early-retirement program this year that could spur an exodus of hundreds of veteran educators who are weary of declining working conditions and wary of her initiatives, George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said yesterday.

Rhee and the union held a workshop last month to gauge the level of interest among veteran teachers. A standing-room-only crowd of about 250 attended the session, and nearly all of them indicated that they would accept an early-retirement offer, Parker said.

"I think we would have the largest number of teachers we've ever had [retire]. I think you could say in the hundreds," Parker said. "We've gone through seven superintendents in 10 years. That is a lot of change to adjust to. A lot of them don't like the chancellor's approach."

Under the usual circumstances, teachers have to be at least 55 with 30 years of service in the system to retire with full benefits. Terms of the retirement program have not been finalized, but Parker speculated that school officials would cut the minimum age to about 53 and the minimum years of service to 20 and that they would offer a bonus of about $25,000.

"Early retirement is an option that the administration is definitely considering, and is currently working out pertinent details," Rhee's spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, said in a statement yesterday. "At this time, we're not prepared to release particulars until a plan is fleshed out and finalized."

Rhee is expected to disclose details of the plan and a new teachers' contract in several weeks, or once contract negotiations are complete, Hobson said. Among the issues on the table is how to reward outstanding teachers. Rhee has said she wants to find a way to provide special pay increases for teachers who raise student achievement, an idea that the union has opposed in the past.

The last time the school system offered an early-retirement plan was more than five years ago, Parker said. He said a significant number of 4,300 union members are approaching retirement age, although he could not say how many. He said the program is not a way to get rid of under-performing teachers.

Parker and others said veteran teachers are particularly upset at Rhee over plans to close 23 underenrolled schools and to overhaul 27 schools whose students have repeatedly failed to make federal academic targets. Many say that she has left teachers and parents largely out of the planning.

Union members said they fear that the D.C. Council's decision to remove protections from hundreds of central office jobs and Rhee's firing of 98 central office employees could have negative implications for the union and the new contract. They also said she has made disparaging remarks about veteran teachers.

Jerome Brocks, a special education teacher at Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast, said he attended a community meeting this month in the Hillcrest neighborhood at which Rhee said that "if she gets rid of older teachers and gets younger teachers, she can save money."

Brocks, who has worked in the school system for 33 years, said he and other veteran teachers feel "disrespected." As a result, he said, he plans to retire next year.

"Anybody over 40, we're an endangered species," Brocks, 58, said.

Hobson disagreed. "It certainly wouldn't be in the best interest of the administration, and more importantly the students of the District of Columbia, to rid the system of any of our high-quality, effective teachers," she said. "That is not and has never been a goal of the chancellor, for obvious reasons."

Another teacher, who has worked in the system for about 25 years, said Rhee "wants to buy us out."

D.C. schools "are getting worse and worse every year. Discipline is horrible," said the elementary school teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her job. "What's required of us gets more and more demanding."

With teachers getting cut because of steadily shrinking student enrollment, the school system feels "like a sinking ship," she said. The teacher said she would take the early-retirement offer and probably apply for work in Prince George's County schools.

Parker said the school system probably would have to fill vacancies mainly with younger teachers with little experience. He said he has urged Rhee to expand a mentoring program for new teachers, pairing them with veteran teachers for one year to three years. He said he also wants the schools to provide more intensive training for all teachers.

"There are some excellent teachers who want an early-out," Parker said. "I know these teachers personally, and I'm sorry to even hear them talking about retirement."

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