Michigan Looks To Bring Back Retired Teachers, New Bill To Overcome Shortage

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While party divides over everything from how racism is treated in schools to whether textbooks should be put online are fueled by culture wars, Michigan lawmakers can agree on one thing: there is a catastrophic shortage of substitute teachers that must be addressed quickly.

The education committees in the House and Senate are making an effort. They have introduced different legislation that might be debated on the floor of each parliament this week.

On Tuesday, a House subcommittee unanimously recommended approval of a measure that would allow retired education system personnel to return to work in schools after a year without losing their retirement benefits. They might return as substitutes, full-time teachers, bus drivers, library aids, or food service employees, for example.

Last week, a Senate committee overwhelmingly approved a smaller bill that would cut the wait time for retired school teachers returning to substitute teach to four months.

Retirees must wait a year before returning to work, and for every month their wage surpasses one-third of their previous remuneration, they forfeit their pensions and health benefits.

Superintendents in Michigan say the proposed legislation will help them deal with a nationwide teacher shortage that has caused some districts to close temporarily due to a lack of teachers and some states to relax qualification requirements in an all-hands-on-deck effort to get teachers into classrooms. In Michigan, for example, school staff workers who have never attended college are permitted to substitute teach.

The replacement scarcity is a symptom of a larger problem — a major teacher shortage — that Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice intends to address over the next five years with a mix of measures that might cost $300 million to $500 million.

For the time being, the Legislature’s attention is focused on the substitute crisis.

The Michigan Department of Education does not keep track of substitute teacher positions, but spokesman Bill DiSessa said the department is aware of a shortfall.

According to a 2019 report by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy Research, 64 percent of districts are unable to hire enough teachers to satisfy their daily demands. During the epidemic, the situation is commonly regarded to have become worse.

Superintendent Steve Patchin hopes the Legislature will allow him to recruit recent retirees as substitute teachers in Hancock Public Schools, a 650-student district in the Upper Peninsula’s northernmost section.

“It would help extremely because we have a lot of teachers that retired and want to come back and help us,” he said.

State Rep. Lori Stone said she hasn’t seen the Senate measure yet, but she backs the House idea. Although it would apply to all school staff roles, the Warren Democrat said in an interview in her Lansing office that it is primarily intended at addressing the substitute teacher shortage.

“We need to lower barriers that might prevent retirees from coming back,” she said. They want to help, and they “have a skill set that uniquely positions them to be prepared to walk into a classroom and to pick up and carry on instruction,” said Stone, who taught for three years at Mound Park Elementary School in Fitzgerald.

Both proposals have the backing of the state’s Office of Retirement Services.

According to Allison Wardlaw, the office’s director of plan development and compliance, the 12-month waiting period retained in the House bill is intended to protect the state’s pension liability from people who might retire early with the understanding that their principal would immediately hire them back, allowing them to collect retirement benefits and regular compensation at the same time.

To avoid this, the House measure requires eligible retirees to have “totally severed the employee-employer connection” with the school district and to not “plan or anticipate to have an offer or contingency to get hired” with any school district before leaving.

Stone has sponsored a companion measure that would require the Office of Retirement Service to track the number of retirees who return to school employment and report to the Legislature.