Sharon Frazin thought this would be her 33rd year as a grade-school teacher. But there she sat one afternoon in late July with roughly 500 other teachers in a cavernous conference room on the sixth floor of the central office, listening as school officials told them the time was right to resign.
"I'm very nervous about this," said Frazin, a special-ed teacher at the Tilton elementary school, 223 N. Keeler. "I've had many sleepless nights. I'm not burned out. I still love the kids. I don't want to resign. Still, the deal they're offering is too good to pass up."
That deal, as the officials explained, is known as five and five. In short, it offers teachers, principals, and administrators who are over 50 and have at least five years in the system a onetime, take-it-or-leave-it opportunity to add hundreds of dollars to their monthly pension checks--if they retire by August 15.
The pension deal is intended to cut expenses by ridding the system of seasoned veterans who, like Frazin and everyone else at the July 29 meeting, earn upward of $40,000. If the deal works as expected, several thousand employees, most of them teachers, will depart--swept from the system like crumbs from a rug--to be replaced by younger, greener, cheaper people.
About 10,000 employees are eligible for early retirement, though officials figure only 3,500 will go. The system figures to save anywhere from $12 million to $80 million in salaries next year. "We're talking about replacing maybe 4,000 teachers at $40,000 a year with 4,000 making $20,000," says one board insider. "I'm not saying it will happen, and it probably won't. It all depends on how many people resign. But there's a potential to save $80 million and maybe more, particularly if not all the teachers are immediately replaced."
Whatever the number, it means a blizzard of paperwork as thousands of employees leave and thousands more arrive--all in the course of six or seven weeks. "We've never seen anything like this," says James Ward, executive director of the Public School Teachers' Pension and Retirement Fund. "Ordinarily there may be 300 people a year retiring."
Central-office staff are already working overtime, wading through piles of retirement forms and poring over hundreds of pension rules--covering such minutiae as sick days accumulated over the course of three decades--to calculate how much each employee must be paid.
"The big problem we have is timing," says board member Steve Ballis. "It's going to be very difficult to properly place people in so short a period of time. We have to try and do it in an orderly way, but it will be difficult."
Making the task even trickier is the likelihood that many of the key central-office experts sorting through the forms will themselves cash in on early retirement come August 15. The system faces chaos in the classroom and a brain drain in the front office, which may force the board to push back the September 8 opening.
"There's going to be a meltdown here," says a northwest-side principal who's retiring. "After they clear out the old-timers, they'll have to worry about bringing the new guys in. That means conducting all those background checks in the course of a few days. I don't know how they're going to do it, and frankly I don't care. I've had enough of this system."
The logistical nightmare might have been avoided. Five and five is the product of a statewide law passed last year by the General Assembly. Chicago was originally exempted at the request of the school board, which hoped to use early retirement as a carrot to induce the teachers' union to make concessions on seniority, tenure rights, and classroom size.
But that strategy was doomed almost from the start. The union fought any such changes, arguing that downsizing would expand the size of classes and relinquishing any seniority rights would put teachers at the mercy of principals and local school councils. (The board counters that generous work rules have created an oversupply of teachers.)
At the end of its summer session the state legislature extended five and five to Chicago. That meant a last-minute scramble to schedule information meetings before the August 15 deadline.
At the July 29 meeting board officials repeatedly emphasized that they understood how important the decision was to their listeners but pleaded with them to make it as fast as they could. The contradiction wasn't lost on the teachers--many of whom already mistrust central-office administrators--and bittersweet skepticism and gallows humor prevailed.
"Last guy out turn out the lights," one teacher called out.
"Hey, can I still use the bathroom here after I sign my forms?" asked another.
If Ward and the other officials heard these cracks, they chose to ignore them. "This is not an easy decision," Ward said. "It requires consideration of many aspects of your life. Can you live on that replacement pension? How is your health? Do you want to go on teaching? Unfortunately, we do not have the time to help you make this decision in a more personal setting."
Illustrating his talk with charts on an overhead projector, Ward explained that the deal increases monthly pension benefits by allowing employees to add five years to their age and five years to their years of service: A 60-year-old teacher with 33 years of experience would be treated as a 65-year-old with 38 years of experience--worth about $3,000 more a year.
Some of the teachers took copious notes, as though they were still weighing their options. But most had already made up their minds. "To earn the same amount in my pension I would have to work five more years," said Frazin. "You don't know what's going to happen in five years. Things are so unpredictable--all the strikes and the chaos. Basically they are offering me five years of my life. As much as I love teaching, I would be foolish not to take it."
Yet after the meeting was over and the retirement forms signed, it seemed difficult for many teachers to absorb the fact that their careers were over. "I guess I won't be getting a big retirement party," said Gladys Dennis, who teaches at the Whistler elementary school on the far south side. "Of course there could be four or five teachers retiring from my school. Maybe we can get together and throw our own party."
Dennis said the low points of her career included the strikes, but she preferred to remember the high points. "I've been teaching for 33 years. It's a joy to see the kids after they have grown, and you know you helped them make it."
Frazin said she remained in touch with many of her old students, even those who hadn't prospered. "One of my students, Larry, is in prison for armed robbery. What happened to him is so sad. We write letters. I visited him in jail. I'd love to have our letters published as a book. He was always nice to me. When the riots came after Dr. King was killed, Larry came to school to get me. He wanted to make sure that I wasn't hurt."
Others talked about the changes they'd seen over the years--the increase in poverty, drugs, and violence. "But some things haven't changed," said John Draws, a history teacher at Senn High School. "The board's still short on money. They were complaining about that when I got here [in 1964], and they are complaining about it as I leave."
Very few said they knew what they would do come fall. "I'm a teacher--this is what I do," said Frazin. "That's part of the sleepless nights--wondering what comes next."
Frazin predicted the schools will suffer from the loss of so much experience, but many reformers insist that an influx of younger, fresher, more idealistic teachers who are open to change will revitalize the system. And the board hopes that rookie teachers, who are often easily intimidated and somewhat naive, will shy away from confrontation, weakening the union's resolve and forcing it to compromise on tenure, seniority, and class size.
The retiring teachers offer their successors good luck and advice. "I hope they fight to keep those seniority rights--Lord knows we had to fight to get them," said Dennis. "I would tell them to have patience and love children. It can be a cold system. I've been mad at it many times. But I wouldn't trade my job for anything. I love my job. I love the kids. This has been my life."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.