Mich. may let retirees teach again to ease sub shortage

David Eggert
Associated Press

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers are under pressure to let retired teachers return to the classroom because of a shortage of substitutes and not enough full-time teachers in special education, pre-kindergarten and certain subjects.

A 2012 law allowed teachers who retired after mid-2010 to teach again without losing their pension, but it expired more than 15 months ago. That left provisions of a 2010 teacher retirement incentive law on the books.

Under that measure, pension and health care benefits must be suspended once retirees directly employed by a school district are paid more than one-third of their average final compensation in a year. Retirement benefits are off limits entirely for retirees hired by an independent contractor to perform a school’s “core services.”

Reasons for the substitute teaching shortage are varied, including an improved unemployment rate. Some job seekers who might have taken a part-time position as a fill-in teacher have landed full-time positions in education or another field. But school administrators and the companies they contract with for substitutes say legislators also are at fault.

“The Legislature disallowed retirees to come back who were deemed our best substitutes,” said Clark Galloway, president of EDUStaff, which finds substitutes for more than 300 of the state’s 541 districts. The firm, which recruits, screens, hires, trains, places and pays substitutes, is doing everything “within reason” to search for candidates, he said.

That includes job fairs, highway billboard advertising, yard signs and placements with newspapers, radio stations and on the music streaming service Pandora.

One in 10 Michigan classrooms has a substitute teacher on average – more on Mondays and Fridays. A 95 percent fill rate was considered good up until a few years ago. The current fill rate is 85 percent, Galloway said, which means “we now have 1,500 classrooms on a daily basis that are not getting a substitute teacher or districts are scrambling.”

Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, who sponsored the 2012 legislation allowing for exemptions, is spearheading a bill to re-enact the expired provisions. She said retired teachers were snared in lawmakers’ crackdown on superintendents making six figures who “double dipped” by retiring, collecting a pension and being rehired by an outside agency to do the same job.

Under her legislation, a retiree returning as a substitute could make no more than a third of his or her previous salary. A retiree going back full time into a “critical shortage discipline” could do so for three years. Such areas include early childhood, special ed, foreign languages and occupations such as construction trades.

The bill won House approval 108-2 in March. It is pending on the floor of the Senate after a committee recently amended it so teachers could return while still getting a pension until mid-2018.

“We need it right now. It just helps kids,” Hughes said, adding that superintendents want it desperately. “They’ve been calling, ‘When’s this bill going to go through?’ ”

Coni Sullivan, assistant superintendent of human resources and legal services at the Kent Intermediate School District, said substitute fill rates were at low as 75 to 80 percent in some of the county’s districts late last school year.

As a result, she said, teachers are denied professional development opportunities or, if they are out sick, “we have to double up teachers in classrooms, which means in some cases we’ll have 60 students to one teacher. Allowing our retirees to come back not only puts an individual in the classroom, but puts a qualified individual in the classroom.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, said he is sponsoring legislation that would offer another pathway to addressing teacher shortages, especially in career and technical education. The bill, also pending on the Senate floor, would let districts hire noncertified, unendorsed teachers for more subjects, including writing and those on the state’s critical shortage list.