Some Missouri teachers putting retirement plans on hold

Sunday, May 24, 2009 | 5:26 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — After two decades at Bierbaum Elementary in south St. Louis County, after touching hundreds of young lives and after grading thousands of pages of homework, this was to be the year that Peggy Fitzpatrick retired.

In fact, had everything gone as planned, right now Fitzpatrick would be counting down the last dozen days of a quarter-century as an educator.

But partly because of the economy, she's sticking it out, at least another school year.

"As I sat down and looked at it, I realized financially I would be in much better shape if I waited," she said.

Fitzpatrick, 66, is among many experienced educators who are altering retirement decisions amid the recession. That pattern, if continued, could slow a trend that has seen teacher retirement spike in Missouri and across the nation as large numbers of older teachers complete their careers.

For the last few years, the number of public school teachers and employees retiring in Missouri has been gradually going up — to 2,580 last year, compared with 2,372 the year before.

But as of a few weeks ago, the state teacher retirement system had received notices from only 1,617 employees — 371 fewer than at the same time last year.

Fitzpatrick works for the Special School District, where last year 157 employees retired. So far this year, 87 employees are retiring, and the district expects that number to stay where it is. The district has more former employees in the state retirement system than any other district.

Steve Yoakum, director of the Public School and Education Employee Retirement Systems of Missouri, said it's probably too early to tell whether the number of retired employees would remain down by about 370. The teachers don't have to inform the Missouri state retirement system of their plans until July 1.

Yoakum said it's possible teachers are just waiting longer to make their decision. But he said such decisions and the recession are connected.

"You have to believe the economy has an effect on this," he said.

St. Louis Public Schools teachers, who retire under a different system than most of the state's teachers, appear to be retiring at typical rates.

The state retirement system is a defined benefit plan, meaning that the benefits employees get are based on their salary and years of service. Retirees get 2.5 percent of their salary for every year of service, which means a teacher who has been in the classroom for 20 years is going to get 50 percent of his or her salary.

While the system's investment portfolio is down about 20 percent, it has done "very well, relatively speaking," compared with the rest of the market, Yoakum said. The drop in value shouldn't affect individual retirement benefits for teachers.

But for many teachers, the decision to hold off on retirement isn't based on the size of their nest egg. Older teachers also are weighing factors such as their spouse's employment situation and retirement savings.

"Our membership is about 75 percent female," said Yoakum. "In many cases, if you're worried from a family standpoint about the husband's job, the wife who is the teacher may decide to hang on a year."

Other older teachers have expected to pick up part-time work in retirement but are rethinking that option in a tight labor market.

"If folks were thinking about leaving education after about 25 to 30 years and pursuing another job, I think the question in some folks' minds is, 'Can I get another job?'" said Mary Muckler, director of human resources for the Parkway School District.

Parkway has 69 staffers retiring this year, compared with 99 last year.

Nationwide, school districts have been bracing for what some refer to as a "tsunami" of teacher retirement in the next several years. According to a recent report by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, more than half of the nation's teachers are older than 50 and will qualify for retirement in the coming decade.

The recession may help alleviate that retirement wave. But experts say there's no avoiding the fact that thousands of experienced teachers will have to be replaced soon.

In the near future, the delay in some teacher retirements may mean fewer openings for younger teachers.

Teachers colleges in the region say they are warning new graduates that the market may be a bit tougher this year, and cash-strapped school districts may not necessarily replace the teachers who do retire. On top of that, some teachers colleges report they are getting more inquiries from mid-career professionals who want to go into teaching.

"It's a really hard time for graduates right now," said Theresa Balestreri, director of career services at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

School districts see the value of hiring and keeping experienced teachers, viewing them as an asset to the classroom. But some would argue younger teachers bring a fresh perspective, particularly when they replace teachers who may have run out of steam at the end of their careers.

Fitzpatrick said she doesn't feel burned out as she faces the prospect of an additional year in the classroom. But she says her job does get tougher each year, with administrators introducing new expectations and requirements — and that convinces her more that it will be soon time to retire, she says.

But she says she will continue to love working with students. After she retires, she hopes to have more time to travel, visit her family and tutor home-bound students or adults getting their high school diplomas.

One morning last week, she sat patiently with students as she held up flashcards and helped them sound out words.

"I always said to be in a room like this, I'm either crazy or a saint," she said, laughing. "I do love to do it."

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