Retired teachers can now return to classroom, keep their benefits - Albuquerque Journal

Retired teachers can now return to classroom, keep their benefits

Lew Wallace Elementary School students listen during reading time in the library in April. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Enticing retired teachers to come back may be an answer to New Mexico’s teacher shortages – or at least that’s what lawmakers hope with a bill they passed earlier this year.

Some 48,000 retired educators will be able to return to work without losing their retirement benefits via the new law known as the Educational Retirees Returning to Work Act, or House Bill 73, the Governor’s Office said in a Tuesday news release.

The law went into effect May 18, spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email.

“This is a win-win for New Mexico teachers and New Mexico students, as retired educators can now go back into classrooms without losing their hard-earned retirement benefits,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who signed the bill into law in March, said. “I thank the dedicated professionals who go back to the classroom.”

The act garnered bipartisan support in the Roundhouse, passing the state House with 62 votes in favor and only one against, according to the Legislature’s website. The act unanimously passed the state Senate.

A big motivation for the bill was the “huge teacher shortage” in the state, said Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. That fire was fueled during the pandemic, she said, when many teachers retired early or switched jobs partly because of a “lack of good support.”

There were 1,048 teacher vacancies across school districts as of September 2021, according to a report by New Mexico State University’s Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation & Policy Center. There were 1,727 educator vacancies total when including staff like educational assistants and counselors.

“We’re kind of in trouble with our educational system,” Stewart, who herself is a retired educator, said. “Legislators wanted to help. Legislators care about their schools … and so both parties came together.”

Stewart said the “significant increase in teacher pay,” which lawmakers also passed this year, will sweeten the pot.

Union leaders, like American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Whitney Holland, have also supported the act, noting that it will ease restrictions for retired educators to return to work while “maintaining the financial security of our educational pension fund.”

“House Bill 73 is a great example of proactive legislation addressing New Mexico’s urgent need to staff our schools with quality educators,” she said. “We already know this legislation is working, with many of our retired members actively pursuing a return to the classroom, which is a win for our students, our communities, and our profession.”

About 4,000 members have used the return to work programs in the last four years, Sackett said.

Previously, retired educators who wanted to return to the classroom were forced to suspend their retirement or work quarter time and earn less than $15,000, according to the release.

The updated program lets retired teachers go back to work while still being able to draw their full salaries and pensions, Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, who sponsored the bill, said. They can go back to work without work hour limits as well, he said.

“It’s a way to try to tackle some of the teacher shortages by taking advantage of our experienced teachers,” Lane said.

Applicants for the program will need to observe a 90-day layout period before they can be eligible. The bill is a temporary provision, Stewart said, designed to encourage retired educators to return to work for a maximum of a combined three years “to try to stretch past these times.”

To participate, retirees need to apply with the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board. The ERB opened applications for the updated program in June, Sackett said.

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