Ontario's largest cash-strapped school boards squandered $16.7-million in the last academic year by enabling retirees to pad their pensions with supply-teaching work rather than hiring new teachers, a Globe and Mail investigation has found.
Retired teachers working in 10 school boards, representing half the student population, collected $108.3-million in the 2008-09 school year from taxpayers on top of their government-subsidized pensions, taking advantage of a system rife with loopholes that leaves new teachers scrambling for crumbs.
The investigation revealed widespread overspending, with boards favouring retirees over new teachers for supply assignments at a higher pay scale that, in some cases, doubled the cost to the taxpayer. One retiree working in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board worked a total of 106 days in 2008-09, earning an estimated $47,000 on top of what is already one of the most generous pensions in the country.
Other provinces, such as Prince Edward Island, have reined in such largesse by stopping pension payments when a teacher takes a long-term supply assignment. But in Ontario, even as Premier Dalton McGuinty has been lambasting postsecondary institutions for loose spending, the policing system to make sure retirees aren't milking the education budget relies on an honour system.
The issue has angered new teachers who can't get work, and sparked ongoing discussions between the Ontario Teachers' Federation and the government - yet nothing has changed. Even the architect of the original policy that allowed retired teachers to work more supply days while collecting their pensions recognizes the time for it has come and gone.
Minister of Education Leona Dombrowsky acknowledged the current policy poses challenges, particularly for new teachers, but added that retirees bring much-needed expertise to the job. She said parents have expressed concern that an inexperienced supply teacher doesn't have the necessary skills to lead a classroom.
"I'm not going to debate your numbers other than to say sometimes behind the numbers there are very particular situations and circumstances that might require a board to consider engaging someone who is retired," she said. "I think that both the Ontario Teachers' Federation and the province are aware that there are areas where we have challenges ... And we are working with the teachers' federation to see how we can address those going forward."
But those longing for change are tired of waiting while school boards overspend by millions of dollars each year.
"The system has been abused by some retirees," said Malcolm Buchanan, a retired teacher in Hamilton and former general-secretary of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, who has been petitioning the province to change the rules. "A number of people are at fault here. School boards are at fault for hiring retirees in the first place. The second fault is they don't monitor the number of days retirees work ... And [at fault are] individual members who take advantage of the rules."
The current system was designed two decades ago to address a teacher shortage. Prior to 1990, retired teachers were allowed to teach a maximum of 20 days a year before their pensions were affected. A change allowed for 95 days in the first three working years after retirement, and 20 days indefinitely thereafter. The shortage of the 1990s, however, has long evaporated - for every job, there are about two newly certified teachers graduating each year.
Chris Ward, the province's former minister of education who introduced the bill that led to that change, believes the policy is no longer needed and should be abandoned.
"[With]the current environment in Ontario, I would have to say that it makes little sense to me that retired teachers would be able to spend as many as 95 days in the classroom," said Mr. Ward, who served as minister in the David Peterson government. "Frankly that's just keeping young teachers out of the system and we need more young teachers coming in."
The Globe's nine-month investigation, which included multiple access-to-information requests, has for the first time determined the practice's cost to taxpayers. The Toronto District School Board, for example, doled out almost twice as many supply assignments to retirees than to new teachers in 2008-09. These veterans earned double the new teachers' rate for long-term assignments without paying into the pension plan. (Both groups earn the same for daily supply work, the bulk of which goes to retirees).
Had it hired new teachers for those jobs instead, the TDSB could have saved $7.6-million dollars. The Peel District School Board could have banked $3.4-million and both York Region boards could have set aside more than $1.4-million each, the data reveal. The total savings amounted to more than $16.7-million for 10 of Ontario's 72 boards. Retirees in long-term contracts, to fill in for a teacher who is, for example, ill or on maternity leave, earn, on average, $400 a day, because pay grids negotiated between boards and the unions take into account a teachers expertise and years of experience.
According to the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, retired teachers in the province make on average $40,000 a year, and generally bow out of the 9-to-5 grind by age 57. Retirees also don't see pension deductions from their paycheques - a further drain on the pension plan into which taxpayers make half the contributions.
The onus is on teachers to declare when they have crossed the yearly limit of days worked, and their pension cheques should be stopped. The OTPP said that there were 629 pension suspensions last year, and while the majority were self-declared, it declined to divulge how it tracked down the others.
"Self-reporting was adopted … because it was considered to be the same concept as income tax, which sees individuals being responsible for filing their own returns," said spokeswoman Deborah Allan. She added that procedures are regularly reviewed.
Ron Crocco, principal at Jean Vanier Catholic High School in Richmond Hill, Ont., said school administrators often seek out retired teachers for their familiarity and experience. "I'm torn in some ways because I want to give the new teachers some work, and yet, when I have a person who is going to be off, I want to make sure that I have someone who can teach the classes," Mr. Crocco said.
In the minds of many retirees, the perks are warranted.
"If you couldn't supply teach, most of us wouldn't retire because you just can't afford to go cold. It's a huge drop in pay," said retired teacher Corrine Donnelly, who is in her sixth year of substitute teaching in Bradford, after working full-time for 32 years. "You're assuming that we can all afford never to work again," she said.
She said she was passionate about teaching, and justified her decision to keep working postretirement. "I did retire early from my own job. I did free up a permanent job for somebody."