More than 130 Madison teachers — many of them worried that Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law could lead to changes in post-retirement benefits — are retiring in June, a big increase over recent years.
As of the April 15 deadline, 138 Madison teachers have decided to retire, Superintendent Dan Nerad said. That's a 62 percent increase over the average number of retirements over the previous five years.
The district plans to fill all of the positions, Nerad said, though the loss of so many more veteran teachers than usual could have a more noticeable effect on students and novice teachers.
"A lot of these people have been working with generations of students and influencing people for a long, long time," Nerad said. "Our intention is to replace them with knowledgeable people, but as a rule they will be less experienced."
More than 60 teachers indicated they were retiring earlier than anticipated because of concerns about the collective bargaining changes, said John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc.
Patty Schultz, a school librarian for 32 years, including 23 in Madison, said her decision was made "out of fear."
"It really revolved around the retirement system," Schultz said. "It was sitting in a meeting where people were discussing the possible impact of (the law) and looking at my husband and both of us feeling that we couldn't take what we thought was a risky approach to our future."
Other school districts in the Dane County area, including DeForest, McFarland, Middleton Cross-Plains, Mount Horeb, Stoughton, Waunakee and Wisconsin Heights, also reported higher-than-usual retirements with administrators attributing them to concerns about post-retirement benefits.
"Although there is no current evidence that the state system would change in the near term, staff is still concerned," said Middleton-Cross Plains superintendent Don Johnson.
Overall, the number of public employees in the state that have filed for retirement in the first three months of 2011 is up nearly 80 percent over the same period last year, state figures show.
Though there is no state tally for teacher retirements, Dan Rossmiller, government affairs director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said anecdotal evidence suggests teacher retirements are twice what they have been in past years. That's undoubtedly related to the collective bargaining changes, though an aging teacher population and the recent recession may also be factors, he said.
Like dozens of other districts, Madison extended the retirement deadline by two months to give employees more time to weigh their decision. Nerad said the extra time likely kept the number of retirements from being higher.
During those months the district signed a collective bargaining agreement that ensures existing retirement benefits won't change until at least 2013.
But by then, some teachers — worried they might lose post-retirement health benefits — had already decided to retire.
"People are making decisions about their career without having as much information as they possibly could have," Nerad said.
After 2013, the new collective bargaining law, which still faces legal challenges, gives the district more authority to change benefits without union input. Nerad said at this time the district isn't discussing possible changes to retirement benefits.
The extension of a bargaining agreement in the Deerfield School District also likely persuaded fewer teachers to retire — just two — than otherwise might have given the new state law, said Michelle Jensen, district administrator.
"While I had several teachers submit letters of intent to retire initially, upon settling the contract for one additional year, a majority of these teachers rescinded their letters," Jensen said. "I expect that if changes occur to the retirement benefits over the course of the next year, a number of those eligible will retire ... before (the agreement) expires so that they can keep their benefits."
Some Madison teachers who retired also worried the district would end its Teacher Emeritus Retirement Program, which guarantees eligible teachers 19 percent of their highest annual salary per year for three years after they retire. The program, in place since 1980, saves the district money because it encourages higher-paid teachers to retire sooner, allowing the district to hire new teachers at a lower salary, Nerad said.
The district extended the program through 2013, but refused to do so through 2015 during contract negotiations, an indication, Matthews said, that it could be on the chopping block in the future. Past contracts have extended the program two years beyond a contract's end date to reassure teachers it wouldn't be cut.
"The evidence of the ill will of the board of education and superintendent speaks for itself as to why we have grave concern over the benefit continuing," Matthews said. "They tore things from the MTI contract, which they and their predecessors had agreed for years were in the best interest of the district and its employees."
Nerad said the district wants to remain nimble if future state budget cuts are as harsh as Walker's proposed cuts for the next two years, but that he doesn't foresee ending the program because it helps attract and retain quality staff.
"Whether the laws change regarding bargaining, we're in a very competitive environment for staff," Nerad said.