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Teachers fleeing to retirement

Loss of bargaining rights, benefits cited as reasons

May 3, 2011

Germantown — Busloads of teachers left their communities to protest cuts at the Capitol, and now, many are deciding to leave teaching altogether.

Germantown Schools expects to lose 25 teachers through retirement and another five through resignation.

With 282 licensed teaching staff, Germantown faces a 10 percent attrition of its workforce at a time when enrollment has been steadily growing.

Veteran math teacher Tony Palese, a seventh-grade teacher at Kennedy Middle School, said the unrest in Madison has him and his colleagues headed out of education.

"I don't know of any teacher myself who's retiring this year just because it's time to retire. Everyone that's been contacting me and the people that I know in my circle of contacts (is retiring) specifically because of the situation," Palese said. "There are people that come to me, they have trouble sleeping at night. Their spouses are stressed. It's taken an emotional toll that way."

Losing bargaining, security

The 55-year-old teacher has been in Germantown for 23 years, and a teacher for the better part of three decades. This is as early as he could possibly retire, and he said he wants to make sure he receives the benefits and pay he believes he's earned over his years of service in the classroom.

Even the most benevolent board, Palese thinks, isn't enough to protect teachers like him.

"The loss of collective bargaining would eliminate any protection we had as educators," he said. "Even if you had a righteous board, they might not be able to fulfill that righteousness if they get hammered with the Republican budget. There are some districts are just out to get teachers, but Germantown isn't one of them."

Filling a deficit

Germantown is one of the countless districts across the state facing a deficit. The School Board has decided to keep staffing the same for 2012, but without the provisions in the budget repair bill officially in place, it's difficult to project how the roughly $2 million deficit will change moving forward.

Superintendent Sue Borden said there are some savings from retired teachers, but it's not as great as some believe.

"There's a little bit of a misnomer about that," Borden said. "It really doesn't necessarily result in tremendous savings because you still have to remember you have the benefits of the outgoing person stacked with benefits of the incoming person and the salary of the incoming person. If you take out someone at the top of the pay scale and put in someone at the bottom of the pay scale, yahoo, you get all that money. Well, you don't get all that money."

Savings may be minimal

To Borden's point, according to the statistic provided by the state Department of Public Instruction, the highest paid teacher in the district makes $78,104, whereas the lowest paid makes just $31,913. Losing 30 staff members, however, doesn't save $40,000 a teacher the way it may seem.

Germantown has significantly lower fringe benefit packages than other districts - on average Germantown fringe benefits amount to $15,505, as opposed to $30,311 in Menomonee Falls - but the savings effects are dampened by having to pay essentially double benefits.

Ultimately, the School Board will have to decide which retired positions are to be filled, with the next discussion on the issue taking place at the board meeting on May 9. One of the problems Germantown faces is, not only are they losing a large number of teachers, but they're also missing niche teachers with specific skills.

No substitute for experience

The need to get more qualified or specialized teachers will also bring higher salary requirements, further lessening any financial savings.

"We're looking at special education teacher replacements, and we're also looking at some pretty unique teaching positions like a German position. So when you have a position that is harder to fill to begin with, you don't necessarily have the opportunity to get somebody fresh out of college," Borden said.

Borden also knows long-time teachers like Tony Palese are invaluable resources to young teachers and losing veteran teachers as support systems can have negative impact on the effectiveness of new teachers. It's an issue Palese wonders why more people can't see.

"I know there are the anti-union people who say we're protecting people who aren't doing their job, but the experience is of big importance in the classroom," he said, adding that the status quo didn't need to be changed since Germantown's test scores were among the best in the state.

"I think they've gotten a pretty good return on the dollar."

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