A Return to Work (RTW) teacher in Arizona is one who retires, begins to receive their full pension, but stays on in their teaching position earning a percentage of their salary. This is legal because the RTW teacher technically becomes an employee of a private agency which leases them back to the district. The system provides a powerful financial incentive for teachers like me to stay in the career as our retirement pensions approach our actual salaries.
This is personal because I became a RTW teacher last year in my former district. From one day to the next literally nothing changed in my day to day work – same school, same classroom, same students, same messy desk, same 32 years of experience. You would not know I had retired unless I told you. The only thing different was that my check came from the private agency and was about 25% less than what it had been.
In the spring I learned that with my school’s declining enrollment, we would be losing a math teacher, and since I was a leased teacher, I had no seniority. That meant I would need to transfer to another school in the district or leave all together. (I don’t remember anyone ever telling me I’d lose my seniority when I became RTW teacher; but it was my responsibility to find out, and I would have made the same decision anyway.)
None of the other schools with open positions in the district interested me, but I was fortunate to find a position in a different district that I really, really like. (Every sentiment expressed in The Last Walk to the Parking Lot holds true.)
While getting to know my new colleagues, I would often talk about how you lose seniority when you become a RTW teacher. They all corrected me – that in my new district you retained seniority.
So, here’s a great policy question: Should a RTW teacher – who is not a district employee – retain their site seniority?
My answer is yes,* depending on an assumption to follow, for two main reasons. First, as far as I can tell, the only benefit of denying seniority to a RTW teacher goes to the district-employed teacher one rung down. Without seniority, I started looking for a new job. If I had retained seniority, they would have. Either way, one of us would have either filled a job at another school or left the district. Insofar as there is no distinguishable difference between our contractual responsibilities, why should there be a difference in our respective site status? Is it some kind of loyalty test? Is it about fairness? Is the district saying, “We give priority to district teachers because they’ve stayed with us. It’s only fair?” Heck, I stayed at the same school for 32 years and expected to stay another several. How is that not loyalty how is it fair to deny my seniority?
Second, denying seniority doesn’t pass the common sense test. When I told friends, colleagues, and even students that I was leaving because I had lost senior status, the response wasn’t just common, it was universally some form of: “What!?!? How can that be? You’ve been here forever. That can’t be right!”
Above, I mentioned an assumption for my two reasons why a RTW teacher should retain site seniority. The assumption, which in practice often becomes a fact, is that the only thing that matters in determining how to decide who to transfer from under-enrolled schools is seniority. And taking on that assumption is far beyond the scope of this piece.
*And no, the irony is not lost on me that my district’s bad policy ended up landing me in a better place.