(MONTGOMERY, Ala.) - Some of the more than 1,000 teachers expected to retire Dec. 1 to avoid higher health insurance costs could end up back in their classrooms through the end of the school year.
Officials have been scrambling to find a way to avoid disrupting at least 2 percent of Alabama's classrooms with midyear teacher changes.
More than 1,200 education employees have already put in retirement notices for Dec. 1. Officials expect the number to grow to about 2,000 and predict more than half of them will be teachers.
The looming problem had become so severe that Gov. Robert Bentley considered calling a special session of the Legislature to address it and Jefferson County's financial problems.
But with no agreement in sight on Jefferson County's problems, officials began
looking for a non-legislative solution to the teacher exodus.
"There is a solution to this. There is no need for a special session," said Bentley's communications director Rebekah Mason.
Under the state's retirement rules, teachers can go ahead with plans to retire Dec. 1 and become substitute teachers for the month of December, which is a short month due to the Christmas and New Year's holiday break.
Then they can suspend their retirement and return to their classrooms Jan. 1 on temporary teaching contracts through the end of the school year.
Officials said the teachers can draw the same pay they did during the first part of the school year and resume drawing their retirement once the school year is over.
"They are technically retired, but they are not drawing a retirement check," said Eric Mackey, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama.
Craig Pouncey, a deputy superintendent for Alabama's public schools, said another option is for teachers to continue drawing their retirement but work part-time at a salary not to exceed $22,000 annually.
Officials are unsure how many teachers might choose the options because most haven't even heard about it yet, but the governor is hoping for many to pick it.
"We don't want there to be a loss of continuity," Mason said.
Pouncey said the options are also available for administrators and school support workers who are retiring. He advised anyone considering a return to a school job to talk to one of the state's retirement counselors before deciding because there are many factors that could influence a decision, including whether the employee is also participating in the state's deferred retirement option plan.
The upcoming health insurance increase was one of several bills Alabama's new Republican-controlled Legislature pushed through in the spring to cope with tight state budgets.
It raises the amount that many public employees will pay for health insurance if they
retired after Dec. 1.
The increases apply to people who have worked the 25 years necessary to draw full retirement benefits but aren't yet 65 years old and eligible for Medicare.
They also apply to people who retire at age 60 or later with fewer than 25 years of
Any public employee wishing to retire Dec. 1 has to have the paperwork postmarked by Tuesday.
Marc Reynolds, deputy director of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, said the paperwork from 1,213 education employees had come in by Friday afternoon, but the breakdown among teachers, support workers and administrators hadn't been determined.
He said it will take several days after Tuesday's deadline before all the paperwork
is received and counted. Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education
Association, and Mackey at the superintendents' group predict the total number of education employees retiring could hit 2,000, with more than half being teachers.
Hubbert would still prefer to see the Legislature meet in special session before Dec. 1 and push back the health insurance increases until the end of the school year.
He said having many teachers depart midyear will have the most dramatic effect on special education students who have bonded with their teachers, students on teams with teachers forced to retire before competitions are completed, and students who take distance learning classes.
"It will create a disruption in the classroom for thousands of students," he said.
State employees are also affected by the health insurance increases.
Through Friday afternoon, 423 had filed retirement papers, or about 1 percent of state government's workforce.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)