Alabama’s K-12 public school employee retirement numbers show November, December and January departures at the highest levels in nearly a decade.
According to numbers released by the Teachers Retirement Systems of Alabama, 3,245 public school employees retired in calendar year 2020, the highest number since a mass exodus in 2011 when state lawmakers changed the rules about retirement benefits. Officials said the stress and dynamics of working in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic were contributing, but not the only, factors to the rate of retirements.
Of those, 750 retired September through December, nearly twice the rate of retirements seen during the same time period since 2011.
“Compared to last school year, it’s totally different,” Bessemer City Superintendent Autumm Jeter told AL.com. Bessemer schools, with 3,200 students and 400 employees, saw 23 retirements during 2020, the highest number since 2011.
Statewide, the numbers not only exceeded last year’s, but also exceed the five- and 10-year averages of 2,941 and 2,979, respectively. Retirements in 2020 were down in June, which marks the end of the school year, but the rate of retirements picked up beginning in July.
While the numbers continue to rise, the timing of those retirements has changed and present a concern for education officials.
“Retirements typically come at the end of the school year,” said Jeter, who saw 13 of 23 retirements occur after July, in the middle of the school year. “The retirements now in the pandemic are happening throughout the year.”
It’s a challenge to fill those positions during the school year, and even finding substitutes has been a struggle due to the pandemic. Some positions have been filled, Jeter said, but others will require substitutes until a permanent hire can be found.
The total number of retirements reported by the Teachers Retirement System reflect all public school employees, not only teachers. Public school employees hired prior to 2013 can retire after 25 years of service or at age 62 with 10 years of service. Those hired after 2013 must work until age 62 to receive retirement benefits.
The largest number of retirements in a single year came in 2011, when lawmakers changed retirement qualifications and how benefits would be awarded. As a result, 4,258 public school employees retired that year, with a quarter of those retirements taking place in December.
Jeter said a mix of teachers and other employees in Bessemer have decided to retire.
In Sylacauga City Schools, a 2,000-student district with more than 250 employees, 17 employees retired during 2020, a number reached only once since 2011. Nine of those retirements came between July and December.
Fortunately, Superintendent Jon Segars said, seven of those retirements were expected and replacements were ready to fill their shoes.
“From our conversations with these employees, the pandemic was a contributing factor with three,” Segars said in an email to AL.com. “It’s always tough to replace the experience we lose with retirements, but we are extremely happy with the talent we were able to recruit and hire.”
An analysis of district-level retirement data provided by TRS showed that in calendar year 2020:
- 72 school districts had a higher number of retirees than in 2019,
- 28 of the 72 districts had the highest number of retirees since 2011, and of those 28 districts, 14 had a higher number of retirees than in 2011,
- 22 of the 72 districts had two to three times the number of retirements in 2020 than they had in 2019.
An analysis of five- and 10-year averages of retirements in each district showed this in comparison to calendar year 2020:
- 88 school districts had more retirees than their five-year average,
- 82 school districts had more retirees than their 10-year average, and
- 82 school districts had more retirees than the five- and 10-year averages.
Isolating the September through December period, a comparison of 2020 retirees with those in same period in previous years found:
- 77 school districts had more employees between September and December than their five-year average,
- 56 school districts had more employees retire between September and December than their 10-year average, and
- 56 school districts had more employees retire between September and December than both their five- and 10-year averages.
Alabama, like other states, is already experiencing a teacher shortage. Certified teachers in some subject areas like math, science and special education are particularly difficult to find and hire. Fewer college students are choosing education as a major, state education officials said during a recent board of education work session, which makes replacing retired teachers even more difficult.
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