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Pasco teachers' extensions cut
Their option to stay three years past retirement age is a victim of falling enrollment.
By MOLLY MOORHEAD, Times Staff Writer
Published October 13, 2007
The memo went out last week to all teachers. One sentence, highlighted in bold, stood out:
"The District will no longer grant full-year DROP extensions beginning with the 2008-2009 school year."
What it seemed to mean was teachers at Pasco County schools who had entered the five-year window ahead of their retirement would no longer have the option of extending that window an additional three years.
It sent ripples of concern throughout the school system. The teachers' union got calls.
John Benedetto, the longtime head football coach at Land O'Lakes High School, told the Times he thought he wasbeing forced out.
"I figure after 37 years with them they just forgot about me," he said last week.
But the real reason reaches a much larger scale: Florida's problem of too many students with not enough teachers is, well, not such a problem now.
"Those massive enrollment increases are not occurring anymore," said Renalia DuBose, assistant superintendent for administration.
* * *
A few years ago the shortage of teachers statewide was so dire, politicians pitched ideas like signing bonuses and retention funds to try to lure and keep people in the classroom.
In 2003, the legislature tweaked the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP, to add a provision for retiring teachers to stick around for up to three more years.
It was all to accommodate enrollment.
"They were just growing by thousands every year," DuBose said of districts like Pasco and Hillsborough.
In 2004, 3,500 more students filled Pasco classrooms than the previous year. The projected jump this school year: 1,200.
Hillsborough County has seen its growth drop off, too.
Officials there are changing the practice to extend contracts for retiring teachers only in subjects where shortages remain.
"There are some areas where we just know that we need teachers," said Stephen Hegarty, Hillsborough schools spokesman. "So if you're in good standing and you're a high school science teacher, we would love for you to extend."
Through the process of re-evaluating DROP extensions, Pasco officials looked at what other districts were doing. According to the data DuBose gathered, Pasco and Hillsborough were alone in green-lighting all extensions.
Still, she said Pasco's new approach will go even further than Hillsborough's.
"If the teacher has good evaluations and all things are well, then we're going to be more liberal than that," DuBose said.
An assumed 8 years
When state employees enter DROP, they effectively set their retirement date for five years off. The teacher extension provision left the discretion of extending contracts with superintendents.
But Pasco's practice of rubber-stamping virtually all requests for extensions left an impression with some that DROP was actually an eight-year program.
"A lot of people made decisions based on it being the common practice in the district that the renewal was perfunctory," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco.
Benedetto was one.
"I assumed, because I had heard this, that I could extend up to eight years as long as it was okay with the principal," said Benedetto, who joined the district in 1971 and is now in his first year of DROP extension.
He hopes to keep teaching and coaching for two more years.
Retirees can reapply
Teachers who are in DROP don't just have to hang it up. The system allows retirees to reapply for their jobs, earning the salary they left at while also collecting retirement income.
Benedetto said he's not interested.
That scenario would put him in a much higher tax bracket, for one thing. For another, he said, he doesn't relish the idea of going through the interview process.
"To reapply for a job that I've had for 37 years seems a little silly to me," the coach said.
DuBose said 17 teachers in Pasco are in their final year of DROP. Another 26, like Benedetto, are working on contract extensions.
DuBose declined to predict how many might be extended beginning next school year.
"I don't know. If we have 15 math teachers in DROP and we have 30 openings coming, then we'll probably grant those in DROP," she said.
"We've said, 'you apply, and then we'll look at it.'"