One of the main headlines arising from the provincial auditor general’s report released two weeks ago has been the revelation that hundreds of retired teachers have been rehired while continuing to receive pensions.
It’s a phenomenon negatively referred to as double-dipping.
The high number tossed out by auditor general John Noseworthy — 443 pensioned teachers back on the payroll — has precipitated much knee-jerk condemnation. In the course of this criticism, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NLTA) has come under fire for appearing to downplay the significance of the findings.
Like any interest group, I suppose, the NLTA was expected to voice its outrage on cue. But it didn’t play its part. So now, association president Lily Cole has been compelled to explain why the NLTA has not gone off its head about all the perceived discrimination against non-retired job applicants.
A little disclosure is needed here: I am married to a teacher, and I count a number of teachers as friends — including retired teachers.
I’ve heard, anecdotally, of poor hiring practices. I know of one principal ignoring the usual list and hiring a less-competent friend or relative as a substitute teacher. And I’ve heard of a retired principal being hired back into a job over a competent non-retired applicant.
These cases are anecdotal, which means they may be true, but may also involve factors not evident on the surface. No trend can be extrapolated from them. Moreover, they don’t appear to be any worse than hiring horror stories in any other sector I’m aware of.
So, with that out of the way, let’s talk numbers.
The auditor general identified 443 instances of pensioned teachers being hired back into the system in 2009. Sixteen of them were employed in government jobs other than teaching. The vast majority, 360, were only hired back as substitute teachers.
Of the total, 386 received $25,000 or less during the year in question (2009). Sixty teachers worked in excess of 65 days while receiving pensions, which contravenes the Teachers’ Pension Act.
Noseworthy identified six teachers who were hired for multiple years, four in situations where there were several other non-retired applicants. Of the six, five were in the Nova Central board district, which is primarily rural. All of those were specialist positions, either guidance counsellor or educational psychologist. The sixth was a classroom position with the Conseil scolaire francophone provincial.
In every situation, the other applicants were either deemed unqualified or ended up taking other positions in or outside the province’s school system.
Thus, out of more than 400 cases initially cited, only half a dozen can be held up as questionable hirings. And in the report, the Department of Education offers a reasonable explanation for each one.
Hardly a debacle, by any stretch of the imagination.
One misconception that may have arisen since Noseworthy’s report is that paying teachers both pension and salaries goes against government policy. It does not.
As Noseworthy points out in his report, the government implemented guidelines in 2002 that allowed for such double-dipping in the case of hard-to-fill rural positions.
“Under this policy … retired teachers could continue receiving their pension benefits in addition to their salary,” he wrote.
In short, the real issues here are twofold.
First, as Noseworthy rightly pointed out, the exceptional hirings were not approved by the minister of Finance, as required, but by the minister of Education. This is a technical gaffe at the cabinet level, and has nothing to do with the hirings themselves.
Second, as the NLTA correctly stated, the auditor general’s findings highlight a serious problem with recruitment and retention in rural areas. It is this deficiency that requires the most attention.
The proof that too many positions are difficult to fill is there in black and white. Why else would the government implement a Band-Aid policy to fill them with retired teachers?
The question now is, is there a better way?
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.