Retirement system provides perk for teachers

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Janice S. Anthony still works as an educator.
Her current classroom, however, is a museum.
After retiring from the Tupelo Public School District in 2008 with 30 years of experience as a teacher, Anthony, 61, began working at Tupelo’s Oren Dunn City Museum. She is currently director/educator at the museum, where she guides tours and informs visitors about Tupelo’s history, in addition to fundraising and event planning.
“At 61, I’m just hitting my stride,” Anthony said. “I’ve developed into something else, and I’m really enjoying it… I’m still teaching but in a different venue.”
Mississippi’s retirement system allows teachers to retire at a relatively young age. Those who began working prior to July 1, 2011, can begin drawing retirement benefits with 25 years of experience, meaning someone who started teaching at age 22 is eligible for retirement as early as 47.
Many Mississippi educators tout the state’s retirement system as one of the biggest perks Mississippi gives its teachers.
“The retirement system is one of the few drawing cards the school system in the state of Mississippi has,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks. “We may not pay as much, but our retirement system is better than a lot of states.”
The pension plan pays teachers a percentage of the average of their four highest years of salary. Teachers earn 2 percent of that average for every year they teach for the first 25 years and 2.5 percent for each additional year. That means that those with 25 years of experience can earn 50 percent of their salary, and those with 45 years would get 100 percent. Those who started teaching after July 2011 don’t get the 2.5 percent until after their 30th year.
The retirement system also can provide an incentive for teachers to retire relatively young, making it more difficult for districts to convince veteran teachers to remain in the classroom. The legislature addressed that concern a couple of years ago, requiring new teachers to have 30 years of service before retiring.
Both Weeks and Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said, however, they do not feel the system significantly hurts their ability to retain their most experienced educators.
“I don’t see a lot of people getting out right at 25 years,” Weeks said. “A lot of people in their mid- to late 40s might have reached the retirement milestone but may still have kids in school or mortgages.”
Loden noted it is common for people to change professions today. For instance, school districts often get mid-career teachers who have retired from a different profession.
“As a community, do we expect teachers to go into the profession and stay until they are 65?” he said. “I don’t think so. The average person will change careers, not jobs, four to six times. If you get someone to stay in education 25 or 30 years, that is great.”
State law currently allows retired employees to work part time. They can work half the amount of time normally required by that position for half the normal pay. This permits many retired teachers to be involved with schools, perhaps as tutors, substitute teachers or consultants. Some may temporarily teach a class.
After retiring from the Tupelo school system in 2002 after 31 years as an educator, Bob Monroe, 62, continued to work part time for the school district for another eight years. He also did consulting work that brought him to various districts across the state, and for the last three years, he has been a part-time assistant football coach in New Albany.
“I believe I have been able to make contributions to places I would not have had any contact with if I hadn’t been in a position to work part time with them,” Monroe said. “…I’ve been fortunate. I don’t consider myself retired.”
Teresa Gregory, 54, retired from the Tupelo School District last June after working for 31 1/2 years. She also has been active with the district, temporarily filling in as an executive secretary during someone’s maternity leave and helping with the communications department. She has also helped at her old school, Lawndale Elementary.
“When I did retire, I knew I didn’t want to be completely out of it,” she said.
Loden noted that some states allow retired teachers to begin drawing on their pension but still teach full time at a lower salary. They would also continue to contribute to the retirement system. This model could be appealing to veteran teachers not ready to retire, he said. Perhaps it could be used for critical needs areas or subjects.
Some teachers choose to retire and spend more time with parents or grandchildren. Others draw their retirement and begin new careers or teach in other states.
Anthony said she has enjoyed the opportunity to continue interacting with schools and students in her current job.
“I was ready to retire, but I’ve started a new life at Oren Dunn,” Anthony said. “I still get to interact with children, and I love the people-aspect. I’m still teaching.”

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com