TRENTON – A bill moving through the Senate would let retired teachers return to the classroom for up to two years and collect a salary and pension at the same time, in an effort to make it easier to hire for hard-to fill vacancies.

That’s currently the law for short-term hires for school superintendents and other administrators. The proposal would    expand that to teaching positions deemed by the state to be “of critical need,” which is likely to cover things like science, math, world languages and special education.

“This is an issue that’s been facing a lot of our school districts,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “I think a lot of personnel has retired. There’s a lot of vacancies in specific areas, and so we’re just trying to create tools so that districts are able to staff up.”

Debra Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said 47% of principals surveyed have identified vacancies that they’re started trying to fill for next school year and are seeing a low number of applications.

“Over the past year, one of the bigger operational concerns of our members on a daily basis has been staffing their schools and classrooms,” Bradley said.

Some school districts increased pay for substitute teachers to $200 a day in a “bidding war” that was a side effect of the teacher squeeze, Bradley said.

“With many teachers needing medical accommodations or leave and some simply choosing not to return to the classroom this year, our members were hard-pressed to often cover their classrooms,” she said. “More than one principal commented to me that they woke up in the middle of the night wondering if they were going to be able to cover their classrooms that day.”

To qualify, retired teachers would have to return to work while the COVID-19 public health emergency is still in effect. They would have to be retired for 180 days in order to return to their former employer, and the reemployment must not have been prearranged before they retired.

The unretiring teachers would not reenroll in the pension fund.

Francine Pfeffer, associate director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association, said the union is generally concerned about the health of the pension fund and hasn’t taken a position on the bill.

“Everybody’s talking about a teacher shortage,” Pfeffer said. “We know that we need to recruiting more especially men, men of color, to the teaching field. We are aware of that. We’re working on that. We’re not sure if there is actually a shortage for next year. We don’t really have hard data, and in the absence of hard data we can’t really say for sure that there is a shortage.”

Ruiz said she is going to speak with the bill’s Assembly sponsors about amending it to add language addressing whether “a school district can demonstrate whether a permanent person is available for the position, so as to avoid any unintended (consequences) in putting someone who won’t stay there for a period length of time.”

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The state education commissioner could extend a teacher’s reemployment beyond two years, if that’s deemed to be in the best interests of the school district.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously endorsed the bill. The Assembly version hasn’t yet gotten a hearing.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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