Teachers across Georgia chase pension increase out the door

Nearly 2,000 Georgia educators — including hundreds in metro Atlanta — are retiring effective Saturday to take advantage of a pension benefit that’s being eliminated.

In a typical year, fewer than 300 of the state’s educators retire Dec. 1, while the school year is in full swing.

But this year, 1,707 educators across the state have opted to retire now. This includes 123 employees — including 63 teachers, four counselors, seven paraprofessionals, two assistant principals and two principals — in Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district.

They’re heading out the door just in time to claim a one-time 3 percent increase in their base for yearly pension benefits that’s been given to new retirees for more than 20 years and is being discontinued in January.

The bump in benefits — capped at 3 percent of $37,500, or an extra $1,125 — was established after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that Georgia could not exempt the pensions of state employees from state income tax while taxing the pensions of federal government workers.

In recent years, Georgia also has ratcheted up a state income tax exclusion for all retirees — government and nongovernment — so that $35,000 is now exempt for retirees between ages 62 and 65, $65,000 for those 65 and older, said Jeff Ezell, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia.

The TRS board decided months ago that the 3 percent adjustment was no longer necessary, Ezell said.

Allowing it to continue would mean state retirees would be “getting a double benefit,” he said.

The state is moving in a similar direction for other state employees.

In most metro school systems, officials said they’ll deal with the departures as smoothly as possible.

In Cherokee County Schools, officials plan to send extended long-term substitute teachers who are certified and highly qualified into classrooms to replace the newly retired teachers.

“The substitute teacher will stay with the same class through the end of the school year,” school system spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said.

The school system normally has a couple of teachers leave in December, but this year 35 are retiring, she said.

In Cobb County, officials say 33 teachers, nine administrators and 30 classified employees, including secretaries and custodians, are leaving.

“The teachers are from all three academic levels,” said Doug Goodwin, a spokesman for the Cobb school system. “The district plans to hire full-time, certified teachers to fill any positions vacated.”

In Gwinnett,”hiring is a year-round event,” school system spokeswoman Sloan Roach said. “We have worked to fill these positions,” she said.

Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said 1,700 retirements across 180 school systems is a “pretty mild crisis.”

“Over the longer run, some systems may reduce salary costs replacing veterans with new hires,” he said.

In Clayton County, the school system has scheduled a job fair next Friday in hopes of replacing the nine employees who retired this week, spokesman David Waller said.

“For us, this hasn’t been a big event,” Waller said. “It may be because we have a relatively young teaching staff and very few are eligible for retirement at this point.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.