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No quick fix for loss of talent to retirement

A lot of familiar faces are beginning to disappear from state offices and school classrooms around Florida. Longtime workers and teachers are retiring in the first round of a program the Legislature created to encourage senior employees to make way for the next generation.

Some leave reluctantly, wishing they could remain behind for a few extra years of teaching, litigating on behalf of consumers or keeping up with the state's storied history.

At small gatherings around the state, friends and co-workers are saying goodbye. Many are sad events, with the reluctant honoree near tears.

Oh, sure, the state probably will save some money by replacing some of these people with newcomers who may or may not be as bright and good at what they do. And some of the folks who would have been laid off due to budget cuts will probably keep a job.

But we are losing, in one swipe, a depth of knowledge and experience that cannot be immediately replaced.

Take, for example, Jack Shreve, the 71-year-old public counsel who has fought for consumers since the office was created. Shreve doesn't know what he will do. His work has been his life, and his wife died several years ago, so there is no one waiting to travel the world with him.

Or Joan Morris, the curator of photographic archives at the State Department's museum in Tallahassee. The widow of former House Clerk Allen Morris, Mrs. Morris has been on the job for 33 years, creating the state's photo history from scratch. The collection includes more than 900,000 images of Florida's past.

She hopes to return as a consultant to help keep track of photos, but left only because of the rules that govern the deferred retirement program. Her position will be left vacant in an agency filled with uncertainty about the future.

She will continue putting together the Florida Handbook, the "bible" on state government that has been published for many years. Floridians owe a huge debt to the Morrises for their joint collections of historic events and photos. Without their contributions we would be hard pressed to tell you much about the history of our government.

Five years ago the state allowed members of the retirement system _ including teachers, city and county workers and more than 100,000 state workers _ to sign up for the retirement program. They continued receiving their state salaries while pension contributions were put in an escrow account. It allows some to leave their jobs with pensions intact while taking away retirement bonuses of more than $100,000.

In the beginning, almost 20,000 employees signed up for the program, but only about 7,000 were still in it last month when the earliest retirements started.

Many Florida school districts are struggling to find qualified teachers as some of their most experienced hands walk out the door into retirement.

Some legislators, including Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, tried desperately to get a law passed to allow teachers to extend their time in the program but failed.

The deferred retirement rules allow employees to wait 31 days before returning to work as a contractor without benefits. But most don't expect to return.

Some state officials like the program. It allows them to start fresh with new talent and allows a five-year planning period for replacing the departing worker.

As for me, I'll miss seeing Mrs. Georgia Carnley, receptionist for every governor since Bob Martinez, when I visit the Capitol. And I won't feel fully protected from the wiles of big utility companies without Jack Shreve.

And I won't be assured of finding historic pictures without Joan Morris' photographic memory of what the state has inside its file drawers.

We are losing a generation of knowledge that cannot be replaced by dozens of well-educated people.