Politics & Government

Why up to 7,500 SC teachers, workers could quit next year

Kelly Evans taught for seven years at Lexington High School after he retired in 2009.

Evans, 57, worked five of those years because of the Teacher Employee Retention Incentive program, which allowed him to have his retirement pay put in a special account for half a decade.

But that program – which was designed to entice experienced S.C. teachers to stay in the classroom beyond their typical retirement age and later expanded to other state workers – will end June 30, 2018.

Shutting down the program means about 7,500 teachers and state and local government workers could leave their jobs next year, according to the Public Employee Benefit Authority.

More than half of those workers are employees of S.C. schools, already struggling to recruit and retain talented teachers. In four Richland and Lexington county school districts alone, almost 600 employees could quit.

Other areas of S.C. government also will be hit. Almost 3,500 workers for state agencies, local governments and colleges could quit.

The result, one longtime state worker said, will be a “brain drain” on state government.

End of an incentive

The Teacher Employee Retention Incentive program – or TERI – allowed state workers to retire and continue working for a limited period. In the interim, their monthly retirement benefits were deposited into a special account for up to five years.

Before he retired in January, Walt Woodrum worked for the S.C. Forestry Commission, most recently overseeing forest management and firefighting in a five-county area.

“For 35 years, I served the people of South Carolina, and I’m very proud of that,” said Woodrum, 62.

Woodrum said he took part in the TERI program for four years and seven months before retiring. He said the program was a good idea.

“It was an incentive to allow people, once they came to retirement age, to keep working and, therefore, be able to keep their expertise and their training for the people coming up behind them.”

When TERI ends on June 30, 2018, former TERI participants can return to work for the state as working retirees.

However, few are likely to keep working. That is because S.C. law will bar some working retirees from collecting their retirement pay after earning $10,000 or more from their state job. That limitation will cause many of the thousands of TERI participants to retire.

‘Critical situation’

That exodus will present S.C. schools, in particular, with a staffing problem.

Evans, who taught for 36 years, said he is concerned South Carolina could face a serious teacher shortage.

High turnover among S.C. teachers already is an issue. And, former social studies teacher Evans added, fewer students are going to college to become a teacher. Those who do have an incentive to leave South Carolina, where teacher pay is below the Southeastern average.

“It’s adequate but not great,” Evans said of a teacher’s salary.

In addition, S.C. teachers will have to contribute more of their salaries than ever before to pay for their pensions, meaning their take-home pay will be smaller.

At the same time the TERI teachers are leaving, other baby boom-era teachers will reach retirement age and leave the classroom. Many younger teachers also quit every year, deciding the profession isn’t for them.

Nearly 6,500 S.C. teachers didn’t return to the classroom for the 2016-17 school year, according to an annual report on teachers by Winthrop University’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.

Combined with the salary limit for working retirees, the end of the TERI program is “only magnifying what’s already a critical situation,” said Pamela Arrington, chief human resources officer for the Newberry County School District.

For example, Newberry’s Boundary Street Elementary School has three second-grade teachers, Arrington said. Two are leaving – one retired this year; the other plans to leave next year, she said.

School districts will be hard-pressed to deal with the turnover, Arrington said. “We’re all going to be looking for more people than we’ve been looking at before.”

In Northeast Richland County, the Richland 2 school district is working on succession planning strategies for its schools, said Shawn Williams, chief human resources officer.

“While we may be able to fill positions, the institutional knowledge and skill set of our veteran master teachers will take years to replace,” Williams said.

Richland 2’s plans include meeting before school begins this August, with principals to identify positions that will be vacated next June.

Richland 2 also is:

▪  Holding multiple career fairs, offering contracts to student-teachers as they complete their apprenticeships and traveling to in-state and out-of-state job fairs

▪  Focusing on a “grow-our-own” initiative, encouraging support staff to complete their teaching degrees and become educators

▪  Planning to develop closer relationships with Richland 2 high school juniors and seniors who want to become teachers after graduating from college, including staying in touch with them so the district can get the first chance to hire them

State agencies will feel impact

S.C. state agencies, which already struggle to recruit and retain employees, also will see an exodus of TERI workers.

A March survey of vacancies across state government found 14 percent of jobs open and more vacancies are on the way – roughly 1,800 employees at state agencies are in the TERI program.

Losing some of those employees will hurt agencies – including Corrections, Juvenile Justice, Mental Health and Social Services – that have high turnover, in part because of difficult working conditions and low pay.

That pay is low, in part, because S.C. lawmakers have not given state workers an across-the-board pay raise during five of the past 10 years, including this year.

In 2016, a state-paid consultant surveyed state salaries and called them “uncompetitive.”

The survey found the pay of S.C. state agency workers lags salaries paid by other states by 15 percent. Meanwhile, the pay of S.C. state agency workers lags S.C. private-sector jobs by 18 percent.

Gaming the system or a win-win?

Lawmakers decided to end the TERI program in 2012 because they were concerned about the state’s ailing pension system, said S.C. House budget committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson. That system owes billions more in promised retirement benefits than it has in cash on hand.

“There was some perception and realities to the point that folks would sign on to TERI to be able to bank that five years” of retirement benefits, White said.

The fear was those employees then would continue working even after TERI’s five-year limit, blocking younger employees from getting promoted or others from being hired, White said.

“If you want to retire, you need to retire,” White said of state workers, adding closing the program means “you couldn’t try to game the system and retain your job.”

While schools and state agencies scramble to fill positions that will fall vacant, White sees ending TERI as creating opportunities for other South Carolinians.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for new teachers,” he said.

A correction has been made to this story to note that TERI stands for Teacher Employee Retention Incentive program.

Who will be leaving? Where?

The state’s controversial TERI program ends in June of 2018, and many – if not most – of the workers in the program are expected to retire. More than half of those workers – 54 percent – work for S.C. school districts. But TERI participants also work in other areas of SC government.

Where do TERI employees work?

SC school districts: 4,106 employees

State and other employers: 1,853 employees

Colleges and universities: 840 employees

Cities and municipalities: 758 employees

Total: 7,557 employees

How will Midlands schools be affected?

The number of TERI participants at the four largest Midlands school districts:

Richland 1: 221 employees

Richland 2: 130 employees

Lexington 1: 106 employees

Lexington-Richland 5: 118 employees

SOURCE: S.C. Public Employee Benefit Authority