How the mayor can prevent teacher layoffs: Use a tool that's worked before: retirement incentives

[This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News.]

Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have made layoffs — currently estimated at more than 4,000 teachers — the centerpiece of their attempt to balance the city's budget.

But even as we work with legislators in Albany to find resources that would limit the damage to schools caused by the state's very serious budget problems, Bloomberg and Klein are choosing to ignore a time-tested, effective method for saving hundreds of millions of dollars while still keeping class sizes reasonable: a retirement incentive.

Such an incentive has been used effectively in prior budget crises. In 1991, with major budget problems looming, the city and the Board of Education offered an incentive that led to nearly 6,000 retirements in the Teachers Retirement System — well over double the amount of the prior year. In 1995 and 1996, thanks to another incentive, the TRS had 9,200 retirements, about as many as occurred in total over the next five years.

Retirement incentives are particularly effective in the Department of Education, since senior teachers make more than twice the salary of entry-level teachers. There are about 25,000 experienced teachers to whom such an incentive could be offered right now. Given current salary levels, the retirement of 1,000 of them would save the city $55 million per year. If 4,000 senior teachers were to retire, the system would save more than $220 million — even if every retiree is replaced by a new teacher.

While the loss of so much senior experience and talent is not an ideal solution, it would help make sure that class sizes do not rise dramatically, as they did in the wake of the layoffs of the 1970s.

Particularly since the mayor and the chancellor have been criticizing the "last in, first out" provisions of state law that mandate the workforce be reduced through use of seniority, a retirement incentive would help ensure that thousands of younger teachers who have been recruited, hired and trained in recent years would have an opportunity to stay in the classroom.

Just as importantly, it would also be much more cost effective. Because the city will have to pay unemployment insurance and other costs associated with layoffs, those initial savings would be less than $30,000 per laid-off junior teacher, meaning that two junior teachers would have to be dismissed — and not replaced — to equal the savings available from the retirement of one senior teacher.

A retirement incentive alone is not enough. The Department of Education also has to call a halt to its practice of signing multimillion-dollar "sole source" contracts for unnecessary or duplicative services, including one contract that would pay $5 million a year for The New Teacher Project to recruit new teachers, even as thousands of experienced teachers are facing layoffs.

Gov. Paterson has recognized the importance of a retirement incentive by sending the plan for a statewide program to the Legislature. If it passes, New York City and other localities in the state will be allowed to opt in and reduce our teaching force without the systemwide disruptions that will be inevitable if Bloomberg and Klein insist on laying off thousands of younger teachers.

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