She signed on as a second-grade teacher at Ohatchee Elementary School in 1987, and has never looked back. This fall she decided to retire in the middle of the school year.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made in my life,” Phillips said. “I kept seeing the faces of these children and just on a personal level I was really struggling.”
Phillips was one of many Alabama educators faced with the same decision this year, a decision they've had to make due to changes in the required contribution for state employee health care. The changes take effect at the start of 2012. Those who retired before the changes take effect are spared the new expense, those who didn’t will incur it.
The Associated Press reported last week the state could see as many as 2,000 state education employees take mid-year retirement because of the benefit changes.
Leaders in the county’s five public school systems have reported that mid-year retirements are typically rare. But as of last week -- the deadline for submitting retirement paperwork -- several systems received notice that about as many employees plan to retire by January as usually do all year.
“Usually a person would only retire in the middle of the year if there was some type of family emergency,” said Jon Campbell, superintendent of Jacksonville City Schools. “This year in November we have a lot of people who are retiring who didn’t particularly want to retire, but it was going to affect them financially to the point that they needed to retire to protect themselves.”
For Phillips the decision to retire came down to dollars and her family’s well-being. If she’d stayed on until age 65, she said, she would have lost thousands of dollars.
“Money is not more important than lives, however after 25 years I feel like there is a time and I have to consider my husband and myself,” Phillips said.
The extra amount of money facing educators depended upon age at retirement and the number of years he or she worked in the system. According to figures from Retirement Systems of Alabama, a 55-year-old teacher with 10 years of service would see an increase of about $30 per month – with another $30 increase added every year until 2016. For a 60-year-old teacher with 10 years’ service and family coverage, the monthly paymernt would go up $55 per month, again rising yearly until 2016.
Teresa Noell, the local representative for the Alabama Education Association, said she knows an administrator in a neighboring county, now in his late 40s, who would pay $34,000 in additional costs if he stayed in the system for an additional eight to 10 years. That administrator plans to retire before the deadline, Noell said.
For Phillips, and other educators who don’t want to leave mid-year, there is hope. In late October, the Alabama Department of Education devised a plan that would allow teachers to return to finish the remainder of the year.
The plan doesn’t apply to administrators or support staff. Calhoun County educators have said the plan might prove beneficial for students, whose education would otherwise suffer from losing a teacher in the middle of the year.
“We’re going to do our best to hire everyone back in some capacity to finish the school year,” Campbell said.
The changes won’t affect every school system equally. Calhoun County Schools employs the largest number of people among local systems and will lose the most employees. Other school systems, such as Piedmont and Anniston, stand only to lose one or two employees to retirement mid-year.
“I think the timing is bad, but we’re fortunate that we’re only looking at a couple of potential (retirees),” said Matt Akin, superintendent of Piedmont City Schools. “It’s not going to be a major disruption for us; I think it can be for other school systems.”
School systems that do not hire retiring teachers back will have to find replacements mid-year. All will likely be looking for candidates to fill support and staff positions.
“I think there are certainly candidates out there that are probably quality candidates, but it’s a tough thing to do in the middle of the school year,” Akin said.
As for Phillips, she’s just happy to know she’ll have the option of returning to finish the year with her last second-grade class. Friday she read with the children, who all were unaware of the decision facing their teacher.
Phillips hopes to return for the second semester after retiring.
“I’m their mother while they’re here,” Phillips said. “It was so difficult for me to consider leaving.”
Assistant metro editor Tim Lockette contributed reporting.