Panel backs hiring retirees for vacancies in classrooms

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A committee of state lawmakers voted unanimously yesterday to support restarting a program aimed at filling critical school openings by hiring retired teachers and principals.

"There is a fundamental agreement among us all that this program has value if it's directed at schools in need," Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Pensions, said before the vote.

Until it expired last year, the program allowed school systems to pay retired teachers and principals a full salary while they kept collecting their pensions. It was intended to shore up struggling schools and fill vacancies in key subject areas.

Lawmakers decided against renewing it after The Sun reported that many of the rehired educators in Baltimore County schools were working in high-performing schools and teaching subjects not considered critical, such as art and music.

After a short discussion yesterday, the 14-member pension committee endorsed the outlines of a measure that would restart the program while limiting it to educators who would work in low-performing schools.

Such teachers would be required to teach critical subjects such as math, science or special education.

The pension committee dropped a sticking point to restarting the program, a provision that would have limited the combined salary and pension money of a rehired educator.

Some of the teachers had earned more than $100,000 in combined salary and pension, much more than they had made before retiring.

In lieu of a salary limit, Del. Mary-Dulany James, co-chairwoman of the pension committee, said in an interview that lawmakers planned to restrict further what subjects and what schools were available to rehired educators.

"Hopefully, we can curb the abuses and allow the program to continue," said James, a Democrat from Harford County.

According to department statistics, 764 teachers and 10 principals were re-employed during the 2003-2004 school year in many school systems. Baltimore and Prince George's counties rehired most of them.

Groups representing Maryland superintendents, teachers and boards of education, along with the State Department of Education, have been pushing a compromise as an important tool for filling key vacancies with top-notch educators.

"There clearly is a consensus that the program needs to be reinstated," said Allan Gorsuch, executive director of the Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium, which represents nine school systems.

The consortium has drafted a proposal for restarting the program. Lawmakers expect several bills to be submitted. Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's County Democrat who is a longtime backer of the program, has submitted one.

Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the agency has been working with superintendents and lawmakers to draft a proposal "that we expect will receive broad support this session."

Reinstatement is far from certain, however. During yesterday's hearing, lawmakers had begun debating the language of a proposed bill before Kasemeyer, the co-chairman, reminded them that they would have to compromise.

"All we're trying to do now is express an interest. It may not fly," said Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat. "We're just trying to give the community a sign."

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