The big news back in my small, rural southeast Wisconsin hometown is that the high school and middle school have a few new teachers. Every time I run into someone from back home, they have to tell me, “Did you hear about the new science/math/Spanish teacher”? Unfortunately, teachers in my hometown and around Wisconsin are not retiring because it’s their time. What we are seeing are effects from Gov. Scott Walker’s Budget Tyranny Bill, and small and large school districts alike will continue to face large turnover in the foreseeable future.
When Walker tried to slash union’s bargaining rights, he opened a legal can of worms. With all the actions that are being brought against his administration over the legality of his moves, it’s difficult to remember that Wisconsin’s teachers are left between a rock and a hard place as long as his measures stand. The educators who are now retiring likely didn’t consider leaving their school systems until it became clear that he was going to put his bill into effect. They have two choices: Take whatever they can get out of early retirement now, or stay on and wait to see what retirement benefits, if any, the unions will be able to bargain for in the future. In addition, there is another worry about continuing to teach – no one knows how expansive future layoffs will be.
Right now, it seems like lawmakers are a long way from laying their hands on teachers’ pension plans, but if it comes to it, they may no longer be eligible for the benefits designed to tide them over until they can receive Medicare. It’s a difficult choice that some are now willing to make. For instance, Oskosh’s school district has doubled its early retirement numbers to the highest since they started tracking them in 1994. Appleton’s retirements increased from 29 to 70 teachers, Mequon-Thiensville’s increased from 10 to 28 and Green Bay’s tripled from last year, with 140 teachers planning on retiring early.
Each school district is handling early retirement differently. Some districts, like Madison, Oshkosh and Appleton, have extended their deadlines to apply for early retirement so more teachers can abandon ship while benefits are still decent. Others, like West Allis-West Milwaukee and Wauwatosa usually cap early retirement requests, and others still, such as Whitefish Bay, had their retirement deadline before Walker announced his budget proposal and now refuse to extend it to allow for latecomers.
Virtually all school districts realize that they too are in a sticky situation – either they let teachers retire in droves or they will have to enact massive layoffs to be within the budget’s means. “As we try to meet budget shortfalls and have reduced positions, the hope is the retirees match,” said Jack Bothwell, executive director of human resources for the Waukesha School District, where according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 100 teachers have already filed for early retirement. On the other side of the coin, Janesville public schools had only 11 teachers and one principal file for early retirement, but delivered 125 layoff notices to about 15 percent of Janesville teachers.
In general, teachers love their jobs enough to consider staying with a job that guarantees only an unsure future with possible detrimental effects to salary, something many of us wouldn’t do. For example, in Milwaukee, although 207 teachers filed for full-benefits early retirement, those are much smaller numbers than expected from the area.
For those that do leave, it’s nothing less than heartbreaking. Prairie View Elementary School music teacher Jan Rolfe, who has worked for her school district for more than three decades, was quoted as saying, “We’re the teachers that these parents have been waiting for their kids to have… We’re the teachers that mentor the newer teachers. And we’re all going to be gone.” Walker’s new budget bill has hurt not only our educators, but will also have a huge effect on our future. Says Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, “The amount of experience and expertise that walks out the door with these retirements is going to be impossible to replace.”
Taylor Nye ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in biological anthropology and Latin American studies