Even with 34 years under her belt, retirement is the last thing Meade Heights Elementary principal Esther R. White has on her mind.

The energetic administrator is much too busy tending to the needs of a school with fluctuating enrollments -- thanks to the area's large military population -- to stop and think about retiring.

"The children are what keep me going," says White, who has headed the school on the grounds of Fort Meade for the last four years. "I like what I'm doing."

Asked when she would trade in making sure bloody noses are dressed and creative programs for students devised for more restful days, the reply is simple: "I don't know."

Many administrators, no doubt, are like White: too busy enjoying their jobs to even slow down, much less retire. But the growing number of county administrators eligible for partial or full retirement is not going unnoticed by school Superintendent Larry L. Lorton or school board members.

School officials have spent the last year overhauling the administrative trainee program in hopes of preparing a replacement pool.

"It is a concern to me," Lorton said. "The number of administrators eligible to retire if they choose to do so could be a really serious matter to us, not only in terms of a loss of qualified leadership, but also finding people to replace them.

Lorton said the training program has been shortened from five to eight years to only two years for most candidates. Administrative trainees are now assigned to mentors who will not be involved in the evaluation process, but can provide support. And as an additional option, Lorton said work is in the process for more legal flexibility in attracting experienced candidates from other counties.

"In terms of getting more people involved, we really have made a number of changes in the training program and will continue to do so," the superintendent said.

White is among 16 elementary principals eligible for full retirement. Another 19 of the 76 elementary principals are qualified for partial retirement, with between 25 and 30 years in the school system.

The problem becomes more critical on the secondary level. Of the 14 high-school principals,including heads of the two Vocational-Technical Centers, 11 are eligible for either full or partial retirement.

But John A. Makell Jr., the school system's supervisor of professional personnel, said the numbers may be unnecessarily alarming.

"I don't think we will see too many retiring with just 25 years of service for the simple reason that they don't get enough (money) to make it worth while," Makell said. "From my experience, I haven't seen many retire with less than 30 years. Most will stick around until they are able to get maximum benefits."

Early retirement does mean a substantial reduction in benefits, Makell said. But he doubts even that the large number of elementary principals eligible for full retirement benefits are likely to choose to do so.

"They may have 30 years of service, but they are young enough to want to continue work," Makell said.

The problem of finding replacements is complicated by a lack of interest in becoming principals on the part of some classroom teachers, who ask "Why bother?" Wayne Shipley, English department chairman at North County High, is one of a growing number of teachers who say they'd rather remain in the classroom.

"There are just not enough incentives to take on the added responsibility," said Shipley.

Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, defended that kind of thinking. A full teaching career, he adds, has its own rewards.

"I know a lot of teachers who are very happy teaching," Paolino said. "I think there are enough qualified people out there who want it. I hate to see it when a super teacher is pulled out just to make more money. Some are still in it for the money, but the current contract (offering 27 percent pay raises over three years) has helped substantially.

"A lot of people don't feel administration is a promotion. Education takes place in the classroom, not on Riva Road. I would like to see the highest-paid people in the classroom. They are the deliverers of the service." Makell admits that the lack of interest may cause more of a strain on the system than the large numbers of administrators who could pack off their books if they chose.

"We have smaller numbers going into administration," Makell said. "It's a very challenging position. Additionally, those occupying classroom-teaching positions have received substantial pay increases. Monetarily, it isn't as beneficial as it had been to go into administration. It used to be quite a jump.

"Being an administrator means a lot of sacrifices of personal time," he added, "especially at the secondary level."

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