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Some Oregon Teachers Give Retirement Poor Marks

Hundreds of experienced educators are leaving because of proposed changes that could reduce their benefits by 25%.

June 22, 2003|Julia Silverman | Associated Press Writer

COOS BAY, Ore — COOS BAY, Ore. -- Not 10 minutes into his second-period social ethics class at Marshfield High School here, Jerry Kotsovos has already touched on philosopher Jeremy Bentham, black cultural icon W.E.B. Dubois, writer Mark Twain, and anti-fur activist and actress Kim Basinger -- and he's just getting warmed up.

"How far away is the day we go hunting without guns and with cameras?" Kotsovos, 57, asks his class of seniors. "Is that a good idea or a bad idea, you meat-eaters? If modern, civilized man had to kill the animal he eats, do you think the number of vegetarians would rise astronomically?"

Students come right back at him, citing the Bible in defense of carnivores and the ingrained hunting culture in this gritty coastal town, and Kotsovos, blinking with delight, shoots more questions at them.

The exchange is the best part of the job he loves and has held for 35 years, the job he's reluctantly leaving this month as one of hundreds of experienced teachers across Oregon retiring because of projected changes to the state public employees retirement system, known as PERS.

Trying to contain a $17-billion shortfall in the system, lawmakers have made changes that will freeze the growth on members' retirement accounts for several years. Future retirees face benefits that could be reduced by as much as 25%, after an update of the life-expectancy tables used to calculate benefits and suspension of cost-of-living increases for recent retirees.

Already this year, more than 1,500 Oregon school district employees have retired and are receiving benefits, with more expected by the end of the year, said David Crosley, a PERS spokesman.

Fourteen of Kotsovos' colleagues are retiring with him -- about one-fourth of the school's 50-member teaching staff. In years past, on average only one or two teachers left each year; all of those leaving this year cited the PERS changes as a major factor in their decision, according to Marshfield's principal.

Nationwide, teachers have been retiring in droves for the last few years as the baby boomers who took teaching jobs in the 1960s and 1970s reach retirement age. In the next five to 10 years, 1 million public school teachers are expected to retire, according to statistics kept by the National Education Assn.

This year alone, 6,200 teachers are expected to retire in New York City, up from last year's record of 5,013. In California, about 10,000 of the state's 300,000 teachers are leaving this year.

But only in Oregon is the natural wave of teacher retirements being accelerated by proposed changes to the state's pension system, said Jim Mosman, executive director of the National Council on Teacher Retirement in Sacramento.

"If I wasn't going to be losing big money or if I was single, I'd stay," Kotsovos said during a 10-minute break between classes at Marshfield. "I get teased I won't be able to cope with retirement."

When Kotsovos and his colleagues leave Marshfield, they will take with them hundreds of years of experience and leave the school a different place. Only some of them will be replaced; Oregon's poor economy has led to a decline in state support for schools, and the Coos Bay district can't afford to fill every open slot.

Art teacher Josie Reid, 55, who has taught at the 1,200-student school for almost 30 years, won't be replaced. When she goes, the clean scent of linseed oil and clay that permeates her basement art room will fade away too, as will the lessons she gave on art history and glasswork. The sole remaining art teacher doesn't like to work with clay and ceramics, she said, and no one else will teach basketry or glasswork, teach students how to use a spindle or spend hours showing a student how to work with felt.

Science teacher George Tinker, 58, is going too, after 35 years at Marshfield. He calls the decision to retire "an unnatural one."

"When you get up in the morning and enjoy what you are doing, why would you want to change?" he asked. "If I were to wait, it would cost me significant retirement income. But I thought I'd be here another five years. I'm in good health. I could keep rolling along."

Trained as a marine biologist, Tinker found his niche in coastal Coos Bay. He taught a special unit on oceanography, and his students tested what they learned in class with hands-on projects, sending glass bottles adrift with notes tucked inside and charting where they turned up, or learning how to test water samples for quality and bacteria levels.

Even the school's principal, Arnie Roblan, who dresses every day in Marshfield's colors of purple and gold, is retiring this summer because of the pension changes.

"It would just have been detrimental to me personally, and my family, to stay on," he said.

He believes more than anything, Marshfield will lose institutional memory, and the sense of "calmness" in the face of a classroom full of unruly teenagers that only experience brings.

In some parts of the country, the slew of teacher retirements has at least brought a respite from looming layoffs. Fifty teachers retired from the Napa Valley Unified School District in California, for example, enough to rescind 39 layoff notices sent out to teachers, psychologists, nurses and counselors.

Oregon's school funding crisis, though, means districts here won't entirely be able to replace all those who leave or stem all pending layoffs. At Marshfield, where there will be three or four fewer teachers next year, class sizes will go up slightly on average, Roblan said, and fewer courses will be offered overall.

"We've got a lot of people here who love what they do," Roblan said. "Some of them may look for jobs in other states or other places. They've got a lot of good years of teaching left."

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