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The political climate and benefit changes may drive an increased interest in leaving.

Hillsborough County school district officials are bracing for a wave of teachers retiring early this spring following changes to Florida's pension system, a tougher evaluation system and political attacks on their profession.

"We're just concerned about a groundswell of people all heading out at once that we have to get the paperwork signed for," said benefits manager Deborah Henry.

Already, nearly 370 Hillsborough teachers have filed papers to leave the classroom, 76 more than the number for all of last school year, she said. And they're expecting more as the academic year winds down.

A late March retirement seminar that normally draws 300 people filled an 800-seat auditorium beyond its capacity. Bus drivers, custodians and other staffers are also filing their papers in larger numbers.

Some may be retiring even though they really can't afford to, Henry said. They say the push to overhaul teacher tenure has taken a toll and changed the job.

"Some people are taking that very personally," Henry said of the political climate. "It's hurt morale a little bit."

Hillsborough also is toughening evaluation standards as part of a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Officials say rumors that the Legislature would abolish the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program prompted larger numbers than usual to consider signing up while they still could for the program, which gives employees a cash payout after serving for five more years.

It didn't get abolished, but the interest on employees' payout was cut from 6 percent to 1.3 percent. And for the first time, employees have to contribute 3 percent of their salary toward their pension.

Gaither High teacher Gayle Curtiss, 57, wasn't taking chances. She entered DROP this spring after teaching 34 years, 29 of them in Florida. She transferred benefits from another state to qualify, since the program requires 30 years of service or six years for those 62 or older.

Now she's trying to decide whether she can last five more years. Her job teaching special-needs students is stressful, and she's not crazy about the new burdens being placed on teachers, either.

Curtiss said she had her blood pressure checked after a relaxing spring break and it had improved a lot during the time off.

"The job does things to you," she said.

But Henry worries that some teachers may jump into retirement sooner than they can afford. Some are hoping to find other jobs, but they're already in their early 50s and face a competitive labor market.

"I say, 'Are you sure? If you want to work another 10 years, you don't want to go into DROP,'" she said.

Deputy superintendent Dan Valdez said the district also worries about losing more experienced teachers in a single year than it can replace.

While the wave of retirements could help it fill a budget gap that's projected at up to $28 million, it could result in a harmful brain drain.

"That's great if you're not looking for the greatest teachers, but we are," Valdez said. "If those great teachers leave, we've got problems."

Tom Marshall can be reached at or (813) 226-3400.