By age 60, Bruce Cowan was ready to retire.
A Port Townsend teacher for more than 30 years, Cowan would have liked to continue helping in the classroom, but chose instead to avoid hefty cuts to his pension by agreeing not to work for any public employer until he turned 65.
Today Cowan, 61, is one of 1,003 retired teachers statewide who cannot substitute teach even a day without losing their pension for the month because of a hotly contested 2007 law repealing special pension increases called gain-sharing.
More teachers retired under a plan like Cowan’s in the past two years than in the previous five years combined, according to data from the Washington Department of Retirement Systems. This retirement option, which teachers say is more attractive than others available to them when retiring early, could be adding to what schools across the state call an acute substitute-teacher shortage.
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State lawmakers are considering changes to the policy, saying they did not know their rules would keep veteran teachers from substitute teaching after they retired.
“There was really no conversation about it, except at the time there was a lot of concern about the retire-rehire,” Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, said during a Nov. 18 meeting of the Select Committee on Pension Policy. The retirement provision came up as an amendment on the House floor without much discussion, said Conway, who was a member of the House at the time.
The rule was in part a trade-off to gain-sharing, a benefit that since 1998 paid state retirees more when investment returns on pension trust funds exceeded expectations, said Dave Nelsen, assistant director of customer and policy services at the state Department of Retirement Systems. In a decision contested in several lawsuits for years afterward, lawmakers repealed gain-sharing in 2007.
Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chairwoman of the Select Committee on Pension Policy, wants to know how much the state’s retirement rule is affecting the substitute teacher shortage. At the committee meeting Nov. 18, she asked staff to look into the issue.
“We have been unable to quantify … how much of a problem this is, and in exactly what part of the state is it occurring,” Bailey said in an interview. “If it is causing a huge problem within our system, that schools are not able to get the substitute teachers that they need … then we certainly will take a second look at it.”
No other early retirees in the teachers’ retirement system face such a strict prohibition on returning to work for a public employer, said Aaron Gutierrez, senior policy analyst with the Washington Office of the State Actuary.
Early retirees who choose other retirement plans are docked more from monthly pensions, but the reins are loosened on how much they can work; most retirees in Washington can work up to 867 hours — or about five months each year — without pension cuts. After they hit 65, all public retirees — including those who chose the retirement plan in question, like Cowan — can work that much.
Lawmakers might feel this inconsistency should be corrected, Gutierrez told the pension committee during last week’s meeting. Others may think certain groups of retirees, like teachers wanting to substitute, deserve an exception from the retire-rehire restrictions.
Fred Yancey, a lobbyist for the Washington Association of School Administrators, said the Legislature should consider removing the restriction that keeps retired teachers like Cowan from substitute teaching entirely.
“It’s inconsistent with the other plans,” Yancey told lawmakers during public testimony at the committee meeting. “You’ve created a very inequitable sort of situation.”
Kim Mead, president of the Washington teachers’ union, wrote the pension committee in October asking them to allow all retired teachers — regardless of the retirement option they chose — to work the same amount without penalty.
Larry Laush, 58, a math teacher with 36 years’ experience, would like to substitute teach after retiring from West Auburn High School this year or next. After studying his options, he said, he plans to choose the option Cowan did — little or no reductions in exchange for agreeing not to work for a public employer again until age 65.
But the rules will likely push him to substitute teach at private schools or tribal schools instead of in public schools, he said.
For Cowan, the Port Townsend teacher, avoiding a deduction in his pension while still retiring before the state’s allowed age of 65 was a “no brainer.”
If he substitute teaches at all, he would lose the $1,600 pension check he gets from the state each month. By his calculations, he would have to teach about three weeks each month to make up the difference.
“It’s just not worth the opportunity to substitute teach,” Cowan said.
If the pay was greater and he didn’t face losing his pension, Cowan said he would consider it.
But for now, he said, he makes more money teaching private ukulele lessons.