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New regulations limit schools’ most experienced subs

Former Las Vegas City Schools teacher Marina Melendrez outside the Albuquerque Natural History Museum with her husband and grandchildren. She has been a substitute teacher for six years. (Courtesy of Marina Melendrez)

Editor’s note: For many school districts across the state, retired teachers make up a valuable part of their substitute teaching ranks. They have experience and can often fill in for teachers on extended leave. But that’s about to change. A new law and regulations require more retired teachers to limit the amount of time they spend in a classroom or take off a year.

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The thought of taking a year off substitute teaching is tough for Marina Melendrez, who has been a sub at Las Vegas City Schools for six years.

She’s devoted decades to teaching – 25 years, in fact, mostly spent in Vegas in northern New Mexico with third- and fifth-graders.

It’s the career she always wanted to go into.

She retired in 2013, becoming a sub soon after that.

Now she is facing a year off.

“It’s very sad. My whole professional career has been working with children,” she said, her voice breaking from the tears.

Her year out of the classroom is due to legislative and Educational Retirement Board rule changes that altered eligibility requirements for retirees who go back to work in education while collecting a pension – changes that result in more people contributing to the ERB.

Following the passage of House Bill 360, Jan Goodwin, the executive director of the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board who collaborated on the bill, said retirees who collect their pension can’t work more than a quarter of full-time equivalent hours unless they are part of the “return to work program.”

Under the program, which is already in place, retirees can work as many hours as they like, but can’t join the program until they take a year off from education. Retirees in this program resume paying into the retirement fund but do not get additional payment from their pension with these contributions.

Previously, retirees could work more hours without being required to join the program, but could not make more than $15,000 a year. Under this option, they were not contributing to the ERB.

For Albuquerque Public Schools, changes affect approximately 9% of its subs, according to the district.

Goodwin notes that the ERB fund is a finite pot of money and the goal is to create sustainability for the pension fund. About 49,000 people – retired educators from prekindergarten to higher education – are currently receiving a pension from the ERB, according to Goodwin.

The FTE ceiling created from the changes translates to 10 hours a week for a 40-hour, full-time work week.

If someone goes over that, they put their pension at risk.

According to state Public Education Department data on 10 districts across the state, subs make an average of $14 an hour and work 6.5 hours a day.

ERB longevity

Prior to the ERB changes, retirees were permitted to work the greater of $15,000 a year or .25 FTE, meaning a typical substitute like Melendrez could work as many hours as they chose as long as their salary was at or below a $15,000 annual maximum. Through this route, they did not have to contribute to the retirement fund.

With the $15,000 maximum taken off the table, those workers either have to go through the return to work program or cap their hours at a quarter of a full-time employee.

Currently, retired educators collecting a pension from the ERB who are meeting the .25 FTE cap don’t pay into the educational retirement fund. But starting in July of next year, even those workers and their employer must start contributing to the fund, per the new law.

Goodwin said the changes were born from input from employers, employees and unions.

Ultimately, she said, the intent is to improve ERB longevity because it’s not fully funded.

“The philosophy is that all retirees working should be treated the same,” she said.

Impact on districts

The ERB changes can be felt throughout the state.

Rio Rancho Public Schools spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass said in an email that the district likes to use recently retired teachers to fill long-term substitute positions since they are still familiar with the curriculum and day-to-day work.

Pendergrass estimates the changes will impact up to 35 substitute teachers in RRPS.

And she added that the district projects the ERB changes will affect the number of people subbing in the 2020-2021 school year.

The state’s largest district, APS, is bypassing the ERB changes by taking the major step of turning to a temporary staffing service to employ all of its substitute teachers.

While various schools districts expect impacts, Goodwin said employers were at the table while the changes were being crafted and noted alterations can take place later if needed.

“All I can say is that employers were at the table and if we need to make changes in the future then we will work with them in the future,” she said.

Feeling shut out

While Melendrez of Las Vegas doesn’t agree philosophically with having to contribute to the ERB after she retired, she says she will opt into the return to work program because she wants and needs to work more than .25 FTE.

“I was always a regular sub. I was a dependable sub,” she said.

But her students will have to do without her for a year.

She picked up her return to work application on Thursday and will have to find a job outside the classroom for the 12 months she has to wait.

There aren’t a lot of jobs in Las Vegas, and the only thing that came to mind Thursday was maybe working at Walmart.

She said the money she made from subbing went to utilities, propane in the winter and gave her the ability to see her grandkids in Santa Fe and Colorado.

Karla Ulibarri-Boyle, a teacher of 27 years who retired in 2015, said she will not take the return to work option. With similar qualms about having to contribute to the ERB moving forward, she decided she was better off getting out of education.

“The schools have so few subs anyway, and they prefer retired teachers,” she said. “I feel like they are shutting retired teachers out.”

Instead, she is applying to work at the front desk of a hotel.

“It’s sad. I loved teaching. I loved the children,” she said.

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