School board questions retire/rehire program

Steve McLeod, a Langley Middle School counselor who retired recently, is returning to teaching as a substitute because the South Whidbey Board of Education has concerns about the state
Steve McLeod, a Langley Middle School counselor who retired recently, is returning to teaching as a substitute because the South Whidbey Board of Education has concerns about the state's Retire-Rehire law. The law allows state employees to work while receiving retirement income.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Langley Middle School students began the new year with a substitute counselor. But he isn't a new face.

Steve McLeod returned to his position as an LMS counselor, but as a substitute only, when the South Whidbey Board of Education did not approve his rehire following his retirement this spring.

McLeod unwittingly sparked debate during the Aug. 25 board meeting about the state's Retire-Rehire law.

"It is the philosophy. I have a problem with potentially having someone unemployed that could come in and do the job," said board president Ray Gabelein at the meeting. "I just have a concern that there is someone out there that will be unemployed if this goes on continually across the state of Washington. It adds up."

The Retire-Rehire law, passed by the 2001 Legislature, was viewed as a way to encourage retired teachers to fill vacancies that districts couldn't otherwise. The law allows any members of the Teachers Retirement System who has been retired for one month to be rehired up to 1,500 hours a year, the equivalent of a school year.

The law also allows retire-rehire teachers to draw their retirement pension and earn a wage at the same time.

Lawmakers approved the provision as one way to reduce the teacher shortage, particularly in hard-to-fill positions. It was not intended as a retirement enhancement bill.

McLeod retired in June, after 19 years with the district and 22 years as a teacher. He reapplied, competed against other applicants and was selected for his position by a five-member hiring committee in August.

But the board, by a vote of 4-1 said 'no' to McLeod's hiring.

The motion to approve the hiring failed because of legal concerns and philosophical views expressed by members of the board, in spite of the fact they had approved another retire rehire position during the Aug. 11 workshop.

McLeod said the decision baffles him, but said he does not believe it was anything personal.

"I haven't had any feedback as to why I am not the best choice which leads me to believe the board has made this decision for other reasons, unknown to me at this time," he said.

South Whidbey has one teacher, Darrell Posch, a retire-rehire candidate, who was rehired last year and again this year with approval of the board.

Board members requested clarification of the state law from the district's attorney, Mike Hoge before Posch's rehire was approved on Aug. 11. During that meeting Gabelein said he supported that retire rehire because that person "has been in the program previously."

But it's a different story for McLeod.

McCleod was selected as the top candidate from a final group of five applicants by a hiring committee consisting of district administrators and teachers.

During the Aug. 25 school board meeting meeting, the board voted not to authorize his rehire because of concerns of possible legal issues relating to changes in the law and philosophical questions it.

Director Barbara Schneeman said she had a question about the attorney's legal response.

"I read what it said but it is confusing to me," Schneeman said.

Schneeman pointed out there have been several high profile challenges, like in Lake Stevens schools, that went against the district.

Blanton attempted to reassure the board.

"We have gone through this before," he said. "We have exhausted our avenues to check for its inappropriateness."

Teacher and state public employee retirements are administered by the Department of Retirement Services for the Teachers Retirement System and the Public Employees Retirement Systems (PERS). There were 3,823 teachers participating in the retire rehire program between July 2002 and June 2003.

Board President Ray Gabelein assured the board that his problem with retire rehire does not pertain to the person in question.

Director Jim Adsley said he had a quite a few concerns.

"But when we have a total of 12 applicants for a position, it is hard for me to believe that one of those people wouldn't work, or frankly some of the people," Adsley said.

Although McLeod is continues to just substitute as a counselor, it's business as usual.

"We have the same goal every year, to get our students in the right classes within the first few minutes of the first day," McLeod said.

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