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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Stimulus puts recently retired teachers right back to work

EDITOR’S NOTE: Newspapers are watchdogs of government because of laws that protect the public’s freedom of information and right to know. Sunshine Week is an annual examination of government’s responsiveness to citizens. The project is spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and includes the participation of newspapers across the country.

NASHUA – Stimulus money intended to create or save jobs was instead used by the school district to rehire a small group of teachers who had just retired and collected severance packages.

Through a series of Right to Know requests, The Telegraph found that three teachers who retired last summer were immediately rehired to positions funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion federal stimulus package. In some cases, they returned to the same school.

Federal and state officials have touted the thousands of jobs the money has been able to save or create, especially in public education.

But in this case, Sally Young, Donna Lee Shaw-Kilbury and Edmond O’Keefe Jr. all retired from their teaching positions in the district effective Aug. 31.

On Sept. 1, they were all rehired in Title 1 ARRA positions, working as part-time math interventionists.

They collected severance packages of $33,110, $34,252, and $31,968, respectively, according to school district payroll records.

Using federal stimulus money to employ teachers who already had a job but chose to retire raises questions about whether the money is being used as it was intended: to stimulate the economy. State officials defended the practice.

Superintendent Mark Conrad said the math interventionist positions were created as part of the school district’s effort to improve math proficiency, especially in the city’s low-income schools.

There were similar positions created at Ledge Street and Fairgrounds elementary schools. The district’s responsibility is to hire the most qualified people for the position, retired or not, Conrad said.

“When candidates apply for the position, we’re going to look at the best person for the position,” he said.

Shaw-Kilbury is working at Amherst Street Elementary School this year, where she had worked as a third-grade teacher before retiring. She will earn $50,233 in her new position, paid for through the federal stimulus money.

In an e-mail, Shaw-Kilbury said she retired last year because it was the last year for state employees to retire and get medical subsidies.

“It might be a lifetime benefit and it was too good of a deal to pass up,” she wrote. “I had been in the classroom for 34 years and did not want to retire yet.”

Shaw-Kilbury said she applied for the math interventionist position so she could continue working in the classroom.

“I love what I am doing,” she wrote. “I am getting the opportunity to focus on just one academic area, teaching math. I am also getting to work with three different grade levels.”

Young, who had been a third-grade teacher at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, was kept at the school and will earn $43,160 this year. O’Keefe had worked as a teacher at Elm Street Middle School before retiring. He is now working at Mount Pleasant Elementary School and will earn $41,669 this year.

Young and O’Keefe did not response to requests for comment.

Conrad said because the positions are part time, they do not receive medical benefits.

It’s unclear whether they are able to collect their pensions. Conrad said they are not collecting pension payments. But according to Kim France, spokesperson for the New Hampshire Retirement System, retired teachers who return to a part-time position are eligible to receive a monthly pension payment.

The school district’s Title I director would have worked with building principals to fill the positions, Conrad said. He stressed that the experience of the teachers adds a great deal to the effectiveness of the interventionist positions.

State officials said there was nothing in the stimulus funding guidelines that would have prevented rehiring people who recently retired from the same school district.

When asked if that conflicted with the stated purpose of the money, Chris Clement, director of the state Office of Economic Stimulus, said no.

“There is a need and a teacher has retired and they have special skills that fit the job,” Clement said.

Kathleen Murphy, director of the division of instruction for the state Department of Education, agreed there was nothing amiss in hiring recently retired teachers for the positions.

“The bill was meant to put people back to work, to fill the voids, but also to fill the voids in the school districts so they could continue to provide services to kids,” she said.

Although numbers are kept on how many jobs are funded through stimulus money, how many of the people filling those jobs are recently retired is unknown. The estimate from the state Office of Economic Stimulus is that about 1,250 education jobs were saved or created last year.

Conrad said of the roughly 70 people working in the Nashua schools in stimulus-funded positions, the three teachers are the only ones who are retired. Conrad has said many of the paraprofessional positions funded through stimulus money would have otherwise been cut, essentially saving those positions.

There are currently 33 retired employees, including several former principals, working in the school district and some school board members have raised concerns about the practice of rehiring retirees.

Board of Education President Robert Hallowell said the board’s human resources committee is looking at the issue. He said there will always be instances where hiring recently retired employees is beneficial to the district, but there should be guidelines.

“There are cases where it makes perfect sense for that to happen,” he said. “But right now we don’t have any direct policies that address what you should or shouldn’t do.”

With regard to the stimulus money, Hallowell said he is skeptical about the number of jobs it has actually generated.

Board member Sandra Ziehm said her biggest concern is the rate of pay at which retirees are hired at. She believes that once they are rehired, retired employees should start at the bottom level of pay because they are new hires.

There are some states that prohibit the rehiring of retired public employees for a certain period of time after they have retired, but New Hampshire does not have such a statute. In this case, the teachers were rehired the day after they retired.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.