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Third-grade teacher Debbie Lentz of Hardin Park Elementary works with Buck Wohlbruck on Friday. Lentz, a 35-year teacher, is among the more than 130 Watauga County Schools teachers eligible to retire in the next five years. Photo by Kellen Moore

Originally published: 2012-12-08 17:25:15
Last modified: 2012-12-09 09:22:55

Schools prep for retiring teachers

Five years from now, the Watauga County Schools faculty may look quite different than it does today.

More than 35 percent of Watauga teachers will become eligible to retire by Nov. 1, 2017, according to school system data. While not all teachers will choose to step down as soon as they are able, the turnover is likely to be substantial.

Administrators have noticed the startling trend and say they are working now to strengthen hiring procedures in hopes of filling the gaps with the best new educators they can find.

“You have to start thinking about: how are we going to deal with and address this?” Superintendent David Kafitz said. “Because there’s a lot of institutional knowledge, institutional experience that can get up and move out at one time.”

Ta-ta to teachers

Under the state retirement system, most employees may retire after completing 30 years of service. It’s also possible to retire with fewer years of service upon reaching the ages of 60 or 65.

Employees also may receive reduced retirement benefits if they step away at age 50 with 20 years of service or age 60 with five years of service, according to the retirement benefits handbook.

Of the 618 full-time employees currently working in Watauga County Schools, 141 currently meet one or more of those criteria and are eligible to retire, according to data compiled by personnel assistant Christy Parker.

By Nov. 1, 2017, another 67 employees will join the retirement-ready ranks, meaning 33.7 percent of the Watauga County Schools employees could retire in the next five years.

Teachers make up a sizeable amount of that pool — approximately 35.5 percent of the current teaching staff will be eligible to retire as of Nov. 1, 2017.

Identifying the potential situation was the first step, Kafitz said, and the staff is still working to dissect which types of positions and which schools may be most affected.

Of course, just because a teacher can retire doesn’t mean she will.

Debbie Lentz, a third-grade teacher at Hardin Park, said she plans to end her teaching career at the end of this school year after 35 years in Watauga County.

“I just haven’t been ready,” Lentz said. “I’m still really not ready.”

Recruitment and retention

In February, Lentz and other staff will receive an intent form asking about their plans for the following school year, Kafitz said.

“It’s nothing that we’re going to hold them to, but it’s just a forecast,” he said.

That early indicator then will cue administrators to begin hunting for specialty positions and get an idea of what the summer hiring process will hold.

Because the school system can’t offer much in the way of incentives for staff to retire on a certain schedule, the biggest method for addressing the “brain drain” will be recruiting equally talented people to replace those leaving.

“The next step that we’re taking is really starting to work on ensuring that our interview and selection process are of the most rigorous caliber,” Kafitz said.

The schools are now implementing a new interview protocol that includes a broad range of questions to be asked of applicants in the education field. In theory, comparing the applicant’s answer to other typical answers through this system will help better determine the applicant’s character and abilities, Kafitz said.

Stephen Martin, human resources director for Watauga County Schools, said he will be reviewing the hiring and interviewing procedures with principals and incorporating the new interviewing method through winter and early spring in hopes of fortifying the hiring cycle next summer.

“Based on this (retirement) data, we see the need to make sure that we’re all on the same page and that we’re consistent across the system,” he said.

The work doesn’t stop with the job offer.

The school system will continue its on-the-job training efforts to support and bolster recent hires and do what it can to encourage job satisfaction, Martin said.

The annual evaluation process also will be a way to ensure that the demanding interview process yielded a solid employee.

“It’s hiring, it’s supporting, it’s evaluation, and it’s making sure that we have a strong process all the way around,” Martin said.

While the retirement swell may create a heavy workload during the next several years, Kafitz said it is also exciting: when else can an administration have such a lasting impact on a school system?

“We’re making a 30-year impact almost every time we hire,” Kafitz said. “That’s the way that we want to look at it.”

Promising perks

In some ways, Watauga County Schools is in a better position to tackle a potential retiree spike than other school systems.

The proximity to Appalachian State University, known for its ability to produce quality teachers, allows the school system to pick the best and the brightest young teachers from right next door.

The school system’s reputation also helps, Martin said. The office has on occasion received close to 300 applications for a single position, he said.

Despite the difficulties ahead, administrators say they’re up for the challenge.

“It really has challenged us to ensure that we’re ready, that we’ll be selecting the right people to come in and kind of pick up the banner and carry it forward,” Kafitz said. “This has been a high-performing, high-quality school district for many, many, many years, and none of us wants to see that change.”