Try 1 month for 99¢

Limnologist Dick Lathrop might know more about Devil’s Lake than anybody else in the world.

For nearly 20 years, Lathrop has headed efforts to improve water quality in Wisconsin’s best-known state park. One unique project, which involves using a nearly mile-long pipeline to suck weed-boosting phosphorus from the lake bottom, has been followed by water researchers nationwide.

But Lathrop, 62, recently left state service after 33 years with the Department of Natural Resources. He says he started thinking seriously about retirement after the November election of Gov. Scott Walker. Rumors about more cuts at the DNR and Walker’s vow to make the state “open for business” by easing environmental regulations were weighing on his mind, he says.

“I was going to bed at night worrying too much about things,” says Lathrop, whose wife, Kathy Nieber-Lathrop, is a counselor with the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. The couple has two teenage daughters.

So shortly before Christmas, Lathrop made the decision to leave state employment. He’d put in more than 30 years, making him qualified for a full pension.  His final day was Dec. 30.

The numbers of public employees who have retired or who have requested information on retiring are up this year in a big way.

In just the first two months of 2011, through Feb. 25, retirements jumped 31 percent compared to the same period last year, from 1,215 in 2010 to 1,595,  according to the state Department of Employee Trust Funds, which oversees the Wisconsin Retirement System.

And the number of people requesting estimates on their retirement benefits during the same period increased 69 percent, from 3,462 in the first two months of 2010 to 5,866 in 2011. Staff with the ETF plug an employee’s estimated date of retirement into a formula to determine what the person’s benefit package would look like if he or she were to retire on that date.

The retirement system includes roughly 265,000 employees: 73 percent are public employees at the local level and 27 percent are state employees. The system administers benefits to union and nonunion workers. City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County public workers are not included in the state retirement system.

The number of retirements and the interest in retirement among state employees only intensified after Walker introduced his bombshell budget repair bill on Feb. 11. On March 9, Senate Republicans, in a surprise move, approved passage of an amended version of the bill. The Assembly followed suit last Thursday and Walker signed the measure a day later.

The bill, among other things, eliminates nearly all collective bargaining rights for most public employees and requires a 5.8 percent salary contribution to pensions and a 12.6 percent health insurance contribution. It also sets the stage for the state Department of Health Services to revamp Medicaid services without legislative input.

During the week following the governor’s introduction of the bill, ETF received 1,427 requests for retirement estimates and 240 retirement applications, three times more than the amount received in the same week in 2010. The next week the agency received 1,282 requests for retirement estimates and 324 employees turned in their retirement applications.

Matt Stohr, an ETF spokesman, says employees are not asked why they are retiring.

But a statement on the agency’s website gives some clues: “In the wake of the budget repair bill, we are struggling to keep up with all who want information from us.”

Stohr says employees are particularly concerned about whether their current benefits will change, especially one known as the sick leave conversion.

This allows all retiring union and non-union employees to convert their unused sick leave to pay for retiree health insurance premiums. Employees who have worked for the state for 15 years receive an additional 52 hours of sick leave credit for this purpose.

Since the program is defined by state statute, any changes would require legislative action. For now, the recently signed budget repair bill, which takes effect March 25, and the governor’s proposed 2011-2013 biennium budget, scheduled to take effect July 1, do not contain language that would change the sick leave conversion benefit. Stohr says the benefit would continue until at least June 30 for all eligible employees. (Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, has drafted a bill to end sick leave year-to-year accrual but it would apply only to elected officials, judges and state lawmakers.)

When asked to comment on the sharp hike in employee retirements this year, Cullen Werwie, a Walker spokesman, avoided the question. In an e-mail response he said only that state workers shouldn’t be concerned with immediate changes to their benefits since neither the budget repair bill nor the governor’s proposed budget make changes to employee retirement benefits.

Despite these short-term assurances, it’s clear from interviews with public employees that the potential for losing benefits in the near future looms large and is one motivation for those heading for the doors. Others are leaving because they are tired of feeling like they have a “target on their backs,” as one put it, and oppose the cuts they fear will hurt the citizens they serve.

As seasoned workers leave, people inside and outside of state government worry about a loss of institutional experience and memory.

The DNR’s Lathrop, for instance, will be hard, if not impossible, to replace, colleagues say.

“Dick is the ‘go-to’ guy regarding lake issues in Wisconsin,” says Ken Potter of the UW-Madison’s department of civil & environmental engineering. “His early retirement is a great loss to the DNR, the University of Wisconsin and the people of Wisconsin.”

•    •    •    •

History teacher Tom Howe planned to cap off what’s been a long and successful career by returning to the Monona Grove School District after spending six years mentoring beginning educators at a national program at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

But now, after less than a year back at Monona Grove High School, the 55-year-old, who was the 1995 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, has turned in his resignation, effective at the end of this school year.

He’s not happy about it. In fact, he’s heartbroken. But with a hostile climate surrounding the future of public education, the elimination of nearly all collective bargaining rights for teachers, and no certainty about compensation or working conditions after the current contract expires on June 30, 2012, Howe believes he can’t afford to risk losing the benefits, including health insurance, he and his wife had planned on for retirement.

Under the Monona Grove School District teachers’ contract, retiring teachers receive health insurance benefits for eight years or until they are eligible for Medicare at age 65, whichever comes first. And as an early retiree, Howe will also receive $10,000 a year for three years, which goes into a retirement plan, similar to a 401(k).

Teachers who have more than 15 years of service in the district and are 55 or older are eligible for these early retirement benefits.

Howe’s decision to quit teaching now, when his retirement benefits are still guaranteed through his current contract, is being repeated throughout Dane County and across the state. Veteran teachers by the hundreds are leaving the profession, say school district administrators, and, like Howe, many are reluctant to go.

In Monona Grove alone, 16 teachers are retiring this year. In any given year, typically three to four teachers retire, says Susan Fox, president of the Monona Grove School Board. “We are facing a real brain drain,” she says. There are approximately 250 teachers and 3,000 students in the school district.

“For many teachers, this is an incredibly wrenching decision,” says Howe. “It’s not enlivening, it’s not liberating. It’s melancholy because it’s forced, it’s rushed. I haven’t talked to anyone who’s leaving who hasn’t had tears in their eyes.”

Tears are being shed on both sides.

Howe is exactly the kind of high-caliber teacher districts can’t afford to lose, says Fox, calling his retirement a “lose-lose” proposition.

“He really represents the best in the profession. He doesn’t want to stop teaching; we don’t want him to go.”

Fox says she speaks as a parent of children who had Howe as a teacher and as a board member. “It’s not just the breadth and depth of his knowledge in his subject area, but he has this great ability to inspire students. And then there’s this whole other dimension he brings to our district, which is his role as a mentor, and his ability to help other teachers reach their full potential, too. He’s incredibly well-respected.”

Although the Madison Metropolitan School District is seeing an average number of resignations this year, human resources director Bob Nadler predicts there will be a surge in retirements as the April 15 retirement notification deadline draws near. The district and its five employee unions agreed this past weekend to a contract extension that preserves most benefits through June 30, 2013, but Nadler says there remains a “real sense of panic” among many teachers.

That sense of panic is fueling retirements in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. In an average year, Middleton, with just over 6,000 students and about 550 staff members, would expect to see about 12 teachers retiring, says human resources director Tabitha Gundrum. So far, 22 teachers have submitted their resignations. Counseling meetings covering retirement and retirement benefits have been jammed for the last couple of weeks. The deadline to notify the district was Monday at noon. 

Gundrum says some of the current retirements are due to baby boomer demographics, but that anticipated uptick has been exacerbated by the scramble among eligible teachers to get out while their benefits are still intact.

“If teachers retire this year, they’re still guaranteed early retirement benefits, which are quite good,” Gundrum says. “And, if they wait until next year, they’ll be eligible for a modified version of the benefits.” After that, she admits, it’s hard to predict what the contract will look like.

While the loss of experienced teachers has its downside, Gundrum acknowledges that there could be some upside for the district and students, especially in terms of cost savings.

For example, veteran teachers in Dane County with decades of experience under their belts make an average of $60,000 to $70,000 a year. Entry-level teachers make on average about half of that.

And a beginning teacher’s inexperience may be offset by energy and youthful enthusiasm, or a willingness to take on innovative practices or technologies students understand and parents appreciate.

Jared Van Dyke, 22, a senior at the University of Wisconsin School of Education, will be certified to teach social studies for grades 6 through 12 when he graduates in May. His fiancée has already found a job teaching music at Madison’s Toki Middle School. Van Dyke says he’s been saddened by the grim mood at the Cottage Grove middle school where he is doing student teaching, but realizes the exodus from the schools of more experienced teachers could open up some opportunities for him.

“Because my fiancée has already found a job here, I’m a little restricted in where I can go,” says Van Dyke. “So if there are more job openings this year for teachers, that’s going to be a helpful thing for me while I’m looking for work.”

•    •    •    •

Soon after Walker released his budget repair bill on Feb. 11, Rob Howard, an associate professor of communication arts at UW-Madison, e-mailed The Capital Times to say he was “actively seeking to leave the UW due to low salaries and overt hostility from an ungrateful and backward looking movement in some parts of the state.”

Although Howard and other faculty and academic staff at UW-Madison don’t belong to unions with collective bargaining powers, most of the 5,000 classified staff on campus — from IT employees and accountants to custodians and food service personnel — do.

“I came here from California where it’s warm and the people are sad that they have mismanaged state budgets to the detriment of the best university and research organizations in the country,” wrote Howard, who is also director of the digital studies program.

“Nonetheless, I am looking to go back. Wisconsin offers a long history of labor consciousness and one of the best research and education systems in the world. Without the UW System as it is, however, Wisconsin might as well be Kansas.”

After seeing Walker’s 2011-13 budget proposal, Howard was no more upbeat. The budget cuts $62.5 million in funding from UW-Madison in each of the next two years, a 13 percent hit to the university’s taxpayer support. “I think with this complete abandonment of Wisconsin’s traditions in education and research, the slow exodus of recent years from UW-Madison will become a flood,” he says.

It was just one year ago that The Capital Times ran an in-depth piece highlighting how UW-Madison was having a good run at attracting outside talent because Wisconsin’s flagship was weathering the economic crisis a bit better than most institutions. In that article, Ken Ono, a UW-Madison math professor who was chairing the department’s recruiting committee, warned that the situation could change quickly. Ono is now one of those professors who is likely taking his talents elsewhere.

“I haven’t yet officially resigned, but it’s unlikely I’m coming back to Madison,” says Ono, who took a leave from UW-Madison this year to work at Emory University in Atlanta. “The reality is I’m very worried about Wisconsin’s ability to maintain a national-level university. Where I’m at now, the average full math professor makes more than what I made last year at Wisconsin as a professor with two endowed chairs. How can you keep people at a university if they can make twice as much somewhere else?”

Adds Ono, a father of two who spent 10 years at UW-Madison and who recently earned recognition in Scientific American for proving an important theorem: “It breaks my heart so see what the state budget continues to do to the university.”

Richard Young, a UW-Madison professor of English, is similarly disheartened by state budget cuts and, as he puts it, “the way things are happening here.” So much so that he recently applied for a job at the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

“I think the governor needs to slow down,” says Young, who has taught at UW-Madison since 1993. “His attack on organized labor is really terrible. He’s saying either you do what I want or else. To go about it in this way is just unacceptable to me.”

But not everyone is ready to pack up and go. In 2007, Jon Pevehouse of the political science department more than doubled his salary with a move to the University of Chicago. But the international relations expert moved back in the summer of 2009 because his family missed Madison and the political science department at UW-Madison indicated it was committed to building its program.

“This will pass,” says Pevehouse, who believes the increased freedoms promised under Chancellor Biddy Martin’s New Badger Partnership plan bode well for the health of the university. “Most other big publics are going to be hit as well. Look, I’m not happy about the pension pay or the increased health premiums, but I’ll cope.”

Chris Taber, a highly touted UW-Madison labor economist who was wooed from Northwestern University three years ago, also has no plans to jump ship. “Things are tough everywhere, not just here,” he says. “Obviously people are not happy about the potential increase in pension payments, but I don’t think anyone would move because of it. I am not having any second thoughts.”

•    •    •    •

Ken Golden, 63, is one of the only staffers at the state Department of Health Services who oversees adult foster homes. A former Madison City Council member, he is retiring after 32 years in state government on March 18.

He says the mood at work in recent months has been somber, like being at a funeral.

Golden says when he began working for the state, jobs in human services were considered some of the best-paying positions in the field. But that is no longer the case.

“I can’t count the number of times when the wage increase has been zero, when it’s been 2 percent, when it hasn’t kept up with inflation. I’ve lost ground over that time period, as have many of my co-workers.”

Still, he says, staff members remain dedicated. Golden sees the growing number of retirements related less to wage cuts from increased benefit payments than to a bleak outlook for the future.

“I believe that people in my environment are willing to make sacrifices,” he says. “We’re not willing to be vilified,” he adds, noting that it’s clear that Walker “hates” state employees.

Moreover, many employees will now be forced, if they stay, to oversee the dismantling of programs they believe in, and in many cases, helped build.

“This administration just seems to be one that wants to roll back government in a way that’s unprecedented,” he says.

And that’s something that “Julie,” who asked that her real name not be used, and some of her co-workers, are finding hard to bear. A 16-year state veteran who specializes in medical assistance, Julie can’t afford to retire early but is losing colleagues who have worked hard to keep low-income older adults and people with disabilities out of nursing homes through the state’s innovative Family Care program. It is clear to all of them, she says, that Walker’s proposed eligibility cap on the program will force some of these individuals from community settings into nursing homes even though audits have proven that institutionalization is the more expensive option.

“Medical assistance programs are going to be slashed and that really impacts the morale of good people who actually have dedicated their professional careers to making some sense out of life for people who are so vulnerable,” she says. “And it’s tough to watch hard work go down the drain with one person.”

Some co-workers who decided to take early retirement now are doing so because they feel their benefits are being threatened, says Julie.

“The people who are leaving are leaving with their heads down and their hearts pretty damaged by what’s been happening,” she says. “But they have to get out for their own security.”

And she worries about the gap these seasoned workers leave.

“Some of those who are leaving carry the institutional knowledge, the historical reference to where we are today,” she says.

“There are folks who have been there for 20, 25 years who have helped craft the evolution of long-term care services for frail elders and for people with disabilities who are feeling like they’re forced out of this workplace now.”

Former DNR employee Lathrop also frets about the loss of veteran employees at his former agency, where few young scientists are waiting in the wings.

“We used to have new people getting training and experience on the job so by the time they were in their 50s they were ready to be the next leaders,” he says. “The problem is we’ve had a hiring freeze the last 10 years so there is nobody new coming along.”

A native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Lehigh University, Lathrop earned a master’s degree in aquatic ecology from the University of Michigan and got his professional start with the Dane County Regional Planning Commission back in 1975. He started with the DNR in 1977.

In addition to the work at Devil’s Lake, Lathrop has headed projects to reduce the carp population in Lake Wingra and control algae blooms in Monona Bay. His latest brainchild is using floating booms to keep weeds from collecting on city beaches.

Lathrop plans to stay involved in projects through the UW-Madison Center for Limnology and his volunteer work with local groups like the Friends of Lake Wingra.

But Lathrop says state government at all levels will face challenges in finding qualified talent going forward.

“As more people retire or leave for other jobs, you just can’t replace that kind of experience,” he says. “What I’ve been telling people is ‘You can only squeeze a grapefruit rind so many times before you’re not going to get any more juice.’ ”