New law tackles Missouri teacher shortage by encouraging retirees to return to classroom

Coral Glades High School. | Location: TAMARAC, Florida, USA.

Missouri’s school districts are struggling not just with a teacher shortage but a scarcity of bus drivers, custodians and other essential personnel.

In the 2022-2023 school year, teachers with inadequate teaching certification taught more than 8 percent of Missouri public school classes, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The crisis has led larger school districts to consider adopting four-day school weeks to address teacher retention and recruitment problems.

Sen. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, has been working on one way to address the problem for four years. And last week, the governor signed a bill into law, set to take effect Aug. 28, that will allow retired public-school staff to work full-time for a district for up to four years without losing retirement benefits.

“It’s not like on Aug. 29 everything’s gonna be fine… but it is going to have an impact to help schools continue to get along somehow until there’s a better solution or they can find people to come back to schools and work again,” Black told The Independent.

Prior to Black’s legislation, teachers and non-certificated staff could work full-time for only two years post-retirement without losing benefits.

The bill includes a provision to help prevent too many staff  from taking early retirement, limiting school districts to 30 retired teachers working full time.

Black said the four-year timeframe seemed like the best fit because it allows a student to attend college and earn a teaching credential in that time. Some school districts sponsor college tuition for some students in a “grow your own teacher” program, where students commit to teaching in the district post-graduation.

Black’s legislation also addresses non-certificated positions, like bus drivers and janitors. Retired school employees can work in positions that don’t require a teaching certificate for more hours. Previously, they were capped at earning 60% of the minimum teacher’s salary, which would amount to $15,000 for those without a master’s degree.

They will now be allowed to earn 133% of the Social Security earning’s limit for those not at full retirement age, or about $28,250, until June 30 of 2028. On that date, the limit will decrease to 100% of the earning’s exemption, which is currently $21,240.

Black figured it would be easier for districts to call retired teachers — who are not intimidated by the school environment — back into the classroom part-time than find an entirely new workforce.

“Schools that are having a heck of a time finding somebody to come in and fill some hard-to-fill jobs, it’s a little bit easier to get (retired educators) to come in the door and be successful because they’ve already lived it,” he said.

Springfield Public Schools, Missouri’s largest school district, met with Black early in the legislative session, the district’s legislative consultant Jason Zamkus said at the latest board meeting.

Zamkus said Black’s original bill — which capped earnings at $21,240, rather than the $28,250 that lawmakers landed on — wouldn’t have given enough of a boost for retired teachers’ earning potential.

“I set a meeting with Sen. Black and worked with (the Public School Retirement System) to try to up that in a way that was both fiscally responsible so that it wouldn’t upset the balance of the retirement system statewide but it would also have the desired result of actually drawing people back into the work of public education,” Zamkus told Springfield’s school board.

Black said the five-year sunset should give actuaries with the Public School Retirement System time to calculate the best number.

Black said retired educators who served in roles such as bus drivers introduced him to this issue when he was a representative. They told him they would lose their retirement benefits if they drove for the entire school year.

“With the old system, they could drive the school bus up until sometime in April and then they had to quit driving,” Black said.”If they didn’t, they would end up losing their retirement; they would get penalized.”

  Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, presents a bill that would permanently raise teacher salaries in the Senate education and workforce development committee April 25 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Black is a retired agriculture educator and often took on non-certificated roles, like driving the bus or coaching football.

He has filed this legislation repeatedly during his time serving in the Missouri House, even striking deals in 2021 and 2022 that didn’t pan out. 

Zamkus said this legislative session was “probably one of the best legislative sessions for public education,” largely because of the number of bills he deemed harmful that didn’t pass.

Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, attempted to address the teacher shortage with a myriad of bills that were combined in committee. GOP infighting in the Senate took floor time from his legislation, killing it as the session ended.

Lewis supports Black’s legislation but foresees more work addressing the teacher shortage.

“Teacher recruitment and retention is still one of the biggest areas that we need to work on,” he told The Independent.

Black said he doesn’t think his legislation will “fix all the problems” but he hopes it makes a difference.

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