As rural schools struggle with teacher shortages, we need all capable hands on deck. Recent House bills signed into law helped retired teachers and other employees return to work without a reduction in pension benefits. But these laws don’t apply to administrators.
Tom Burris, interim superintendent at Montezuma-Cortez School District, is one of those administrators.
Burris, a former RE-1 educator, had settled in nicely to retired life – hunting, fishing exploring and “going out in the forests, doing all the fun things,” he said. Then the district came calling. Burris wanted to be of service to this community he loves and was hired in March.
Burris has a 140-140 contract. He could work 140 days one year, then 140 days into the next year. From his hiring, Burris counted 159 workdays through the end of the year. He couldn’t be on the payroll for 19 days because of a snag with PERA, Colorado’s Public Employees Retirement Association. If he goes over, the penalty is $288 per day. With a four-day school week, 19 workdays unpaid equals five weeks without leadership. Who would run the district? “I can’t let that happen,” Burris said.
While crafting the bills, Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, and her colleagues honed in on the most dire shortages: teachers, school nurses, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and paraprofessionals. This covers almost everyone. Except administrators.
“The shortage wasn’t as acute for administrators, so they weren’t included in talks between state representatives and PERA officials to return under the same plan,” said McLachlan. The lawmakers’ work is commendable. PERA can’t budge without this legislative muscle. Still, we’d like to see PERA compromise to include administrators in the same spirit of support for rural schools. Separately, New Mexico relaxed its Educational Retirement Board restrictions. We want Colorado’s PERA to take notice.
The state gets in its own way with PERA. Our educators – no matter their level of management – need to be paid or have time off. We encourage PERA to reconsider how its rules play out in the real world.
McLachlan, a former teacher, said PERA often says it will lose money by letting employees back into districts. But school budget experts disagree – employees put in money, districts put in money. When pressed, PERA “didn’t fight for that comment,” she said.
Burris added, “I don’t get the logic.”
He pays into the PERA system monthly, with “no resulting affect to his retirement account.” He won’t see the money he’s putting in now.
The Montezuma-Cortez school board voted unanimously recently to extend Burris’ contract through the 2022-23 school year. He is well-acquainted with Cortez schools, having served as assistant principal, then principal of Montezuma-Cortez Middle School, and later becoming the district’s business manager and human resources director.
Since then, he has served as superintendent for New Mexico’s Roswell Independent School District and Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools.
“The best years of my career were here,” Burris told The Journal. “I would not have done this for any other district.”
The last thing we want the state to do is penalize his choice. And he isn’t alone in this situation.
Burris has focused on RE-1’s strategic planning process, and aligning district policies and procedures. Rather than coming in with an agenda, Burris turned to staff members on where the district needed to improve. Two of the most pressing problems: discipline and attendance. Educational leaders deserve all the backing we can offer. And we can’t let up.
We require bold, top-down leadership. School administrators coming out of retirement shouldn’t have to pay out-of-pocket for their jobs. We need them too much.