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Retirements in Elkhorn schools reflect statewide loss of educators

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Darryl Enriquez
May 1, 2011
— After 31 years, Elkhorn Area High School teacher Rhinehart Lintonen has decided to call it a career, joining nearly 10 percent of the district's teachers retiring at end of the school year.

"I intended to spend another year or two getting ready to retire, you know, wrap my head around it," Lintonen, a social studies and psychology teacher, said. "I'm leaving to preserve my insurance. This is a job that's hard to leave. You don't separate what you do from who you are.


"I'm not ready to retire at 60. I will drive myself crazy if I just kick back and do nothing."


The drama of teachers taking forced and unexpected retirements to protect pensions and health care is being played throughout Wisconsin.


The exodus at Elkhorn Area School District is an example of what's going on in other school districts, education experts say.


"What we think is the number of retirements may be up to twice the normal trend because more teachers are reaching retirement age," said Dan Rossmilller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.


Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said the uptick in retirements has school superintendents talking among themselves.


The consensus is that there are plenty of newly graduating teachers to fill classrooms, but the lack of experience raises a red flag.


Turner blames the flight of retirement-age teachers on Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill and proposed biennial budget that would make teachers pay for part of their pensions and health care.


"I know some people are very afraid they might lose benefits if their districts' contracts are not settled before Walker's bills take effect, so they are retiring," Turner said.


Mary Kennedy is leaving a 34-year career teaching health and consumer sciences in Elkhorn. She's had enough of the political roller coaster of the past several months that includes efforts to reduce the influence of labor unions.


"I'm retiring because of the Walker fiasco in Madison," she said.


"I would have stayed another year or two," she said. "Being in family and consumer sciences, I know that when someone makes a life-changing decision, it usually takes more than two weeks to do it.


"That's the tough thing—ending a career of 34 years like this. I think the lack of respect shown in the process of making these decisions at the state level is really bothersome to me. I do have regrets of leaving before I was ready to.


"I have about 30 days left, and I never ever in my imagination wanted to count down days to retirement."


Bill Trewyn, Elkhorn Area School District business manager, said the district is losing 18 teachers, about 8.5 percent, of its 210 teachers. Four members of the support staff also are retiring.


That's way up from annual average of two to five retirements, he said.


The district has about 350 employees, he said.


Trewyn said district administrators will evaluate the positions opened by retirements and determine what should be done. The school board will make the final decision, he said.


Matt Janisin, a six-year teacher in technology education, which also known as auto and small engines shop, is president of the Elkhorn Education Association.


"With retirements this year jumping to the high teens, it's due to the political climate," Janisin said. "With the reductions in retirement benefits over next two years, most people felt it was time to call it a career.


A two-year contract extension approved this week by the school board and the association cuts deeply into health-care benefits, he said.


"They love what they do and wanted to stay, but at the same time they have to do what it is best for their family."


Janisin predicts the next generation of teachers won't consider teaching a permanent career because of the budget reductions. It will be a job to do until something more lucrative comes along, he said.


"Are you going to see long-term commitment to school districts? I probably would say not," he said.


New teachers will get locked at a certain pay grade and not grow fast enough financially to make the job worth it, especially considering that it requires an expensive four-year degree. They'll begin to look at other careers, he said.


"Veteran teachers are really the pillars of stability to us young teachers," he said, "and now we're losing the teachers of the teachers."



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