KIMBERLY, Idaho – Debbie Dehoney doesn’t want to stop teaching. Neither does Jan Hall. The two Kimberly educators said teaching isn’t just a job to them – it’s their life.
Earlier this month, Dehoney scooted the child-size 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 about 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.”
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 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. Butch Otter last week.
They will limit what Idaho’s teachers union can negotiate with local school districts and tweak the long-standing 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.”
“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.”