PROVIDENCE — With Rhode Island facing a teacher shortage, state legislators are poised to remove the limit on the number of days that retired teachers and administrators can serve as substitutes without losing retirement benefits.
In February, the House passed legislation, introduced by Representative William W. O’Brien, that would let retirees work as subs for up to 120 days without forfeiting retirement benefits. The previous cuttoff was 90 days.
But this week, the Senate passed a bill, introduced by Senator Bridget Valverde, that would completely remove the limit until the legislation “sunsets” in June 2024. The Senate also passed an amended version of O’Brien’s bill to remove the limit.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, “is working on an agreement with the Senate and hopes to achieve an agreement in the coming days,” House spokesman Larry Berman said Wednesday. “We will work on getting the two bills to reconcile.”
Once both chambers pass the same legislation, it will be sent to Governor Daniel J. McKee to be signed into law.
“There is a nationwide shortage of teachers, administrators, and school staff,” Valverde, a North Kingstown Democrat, said Wednesday. “And while Rhode Island is faring better than other states, we have a big shortage here with hundreds of positions unfilled, especially in the Providence public schools.”
Extending the limit from 90 days to 120 days would help for a little while, she said. But some substitute teachers are already bumping up against the 90-day limit, so the extension wouldn’t even get those teachers to the end of this school year, she said. Also, administrators work year-round, so a short extension would not help in those situations, she said.
The Senate Finance Committee amended both bills to spell out that school districts must first seek out qualified full-time employees before turning to retirees — a practice that’s already preferred by district administrators.
“I can’t say for sure how much it will help, but we have to hold onto as many educators as we can,” Valverde said. “In the long term, we will need to invest in the pipeline of new teachers and invest in teachers that want to stay on and move up and become administrators.”
She said Rhode Island needs to do a better job of making teaching a profession that people want to enter and remain in.
“Teachers are so critically important to the success of our children, our workforce, and our whole future,” Valverde said. “But the growing list of demands placed on them, without the resources and support they need to meet them, have often made their jobs much more difficult and draining than fulfilling.”
The Senate voted 36 to 0 for the legislation on Tuesday.
Senate Minority Whip Gordon E. Rogers, a Foster Republican, said he supports the bill, but he recounted getting a phone call from a recent college graduate who wants to become a teacher. He said she felt her ability to become a teacher was being restricted by the use of retirees as substitutes.
“I did mention that we do have an extreme shortage, and it’s comforting to know that we have a sunset date on this,” Rogers said. “But as we approach that sunset date, let us not forget to pay attention to the pipeline of young educators who are coming through and not shut them out to the point they change their goals in life.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Hanna Gallo, a Cranston Democrat who works as a speech pathologist in Cranston schools, told Rogers not to worry about that college graduate finding a teaching job.
“If that teacher is looking for a job and can’t get one in your community, send them over to Cranston,” she said. “There is a huge shortage. Whenever there are teachers out, children have to be split up. It’s beyond urgent. This is very necessary. It’s overdue.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Louis P. DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, noted the amended legislation states that “no employment may be offered to a retiree subject to this section unless the employer has made a good-faith effort each school year to fill the position with a non-retired employee without success.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.