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Wanted: Retired teachers to return to Colorado classrooms

A woman with long curly hair sits at a low table in a classroom surrounded by young children.

Colorado’s rural schools have been particularly hard hit by staffing shortages.

AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

More retired school employees could go back to work without jeopardizing their pensions under two bills that passed the Colorado House this week. The bills are an effort to address widespread staffing shortages that are particularly acute in rural areas.

House Bill 1101 expands and makes permanent a program begun in 2017. It allows classroom teachers, aides, bus drivers, food service workers, and nurses to go back to work for up to six years while still receiving their full pension benefits. 

The program had been set to expire next year. Rural school districts are eligible, and can use the program to fill positions they haven’t been able to fill through normal means.

Reece Blincoe, superintendent in the Dolores district in southwest Colorado, said his students wouldn’t have access to advanced science classes if it weren’t for “our most senior science teacher.” 

“We would not have him if it were not for this program, and we need to keep him,” Blincoe said.

The art teacher is also a retiree. Meanwhile, Dolores has had an agricultural science teacher position and a bus driver position open for more than a year. 

The teacher shortage predates the pandemic, but it used to be just a shortage of teachers in some parts of the state and in some subjects, such as math, science, and special education. Now the problem is more widespread.

“I would have never believed I would see a day when kindergarten teachers are so short the position would go unfilled,” said Bill Wilson, the superintendent and sometimes-substitute bus driver in Brush in northeast Colorado. “I’d hate to think where we’d be without the critical shortage legislation we have.”

Since 2017, 277 Colorado school retirees have returned to the classroom.

“The rural schools loved it because it gave an opportunity to bring in people who knew the community, knew the kids, knew where the bathrooms were, and didn’t need to find a place to live,” said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat who sponsored both the 2017 legislation and the two new retiree bills this year.

The legislation passed the House with bipartisan support, though some Republicans objected to making the program permanent, and now goes to the Senate.

The Public Employee Retirement Association board raised concerns the bills might incentivize early retirement and the system would pay more benefits than it otherwise would have. However, both the school district and the employee resume paying into the system when a teacher goes back to work while not earning additional benefits. 

Fiscal analyses of the two bills found they might increase the unfunded portion of the pension system, but the impact will depend on how many teachers opt for early retirement.

McLachlan said if anything, teachers getting a pension and a salary are only getting what they deserve.

“It’s probably what we should have been paying them anyway, so yes, it’s fair,” said McLachlan, a retired teacher. 

Superintendents said they expect staffing shortages to continue as long as they can’t pay more competitive salaries. Wilson said fast food restaurants in his region pay more than he can offer bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Blincoe noted that New Mexico is set to raise average teacher salaries above $60,000 a year, while his district near the border can only pay $32,000 a year. 

House Bill 1057 allows retired teachers to go back to work as substitute teachers, with no cap on how many days they can work. Current rules allow retired teachers to work up to 110 days a year before losing a portion of their pension. This program would be available to any school district, but would expire in 2025. The proposal had nearly unanimous support in the House.

School district representatives told lawmakers they often can’t fill a third to a half of substitute requests, even as leave requests have gone up. The situation is contributing to teacher burnout and means children aren’t getting the services they need.

“Each day, we pull Title I staff, special education paraprofessionals, general education paraprofessionals, secretaries, counselors, principals, and even district-level coordinators and administrators away from their regular work to cover classes,” said Robin Reeser, school board president in Cañon City. “We’re extremely concerned about how doing this is affecting our neediest students.”

Title I is a federal program that provides more money to schools for students living in poverty.

Bret Miles of the Colorado Association of School Executives said that other than more funding, these bills were the most helpful thing the legislature could do for schools.

“All of our school administrators were thinking this school year would be a lot more like 2018-19 than 2020-21. We were wrong,” he said. “Every administrator I talk to says this year is harder than last year, and it’s because of the shortages. I cannot overestimate the incredible impact the shortages have had.”

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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