Almost one-third of Long Island's classroom teachers are at, or approaching, eligible retirement age, and local educators predict the trend could widen opportunities for younger teachers who have borne the brunt of nearly 2,000 layoffs over the past three years.
A Newsday analysis of the state Department of Education's Classroom Teacher Summaries -- which have annual statistics on age, gender and experience level, among other categories -- shows more than 32 percent of the Island's teachers were age 49 and above in the 2012-13 school year, the latest figures available, closing in on a retirement age of 55.
On the opposite end of the age spectrum, teachers age 32 and under made up less than 14 percent of the workforce in 2012-13 -- a decline of 14.5 percent compared with a decade earlier. Statewide, the trends are similar, though the drop in the younger cohort of teachers is not as dramatic as it is on the Island.
A database of Long Island teachers in 2012-13 categorized by age bracket for each district in Nassau and Suffolk counties is available on newsday.com. The information is from the state Education Department.
Educators said it's difficult to forecast the long-term impact of retirements on classroom instruction. Many veteran teachers have skills developed over careers that are valuable tools in the learning process, and they often serve as mentors to newer teachers. Younger teachers, though, may be better prepared for new expectations in teaching and how to meet Long Island's changing classroom needs.
"What we are facing is uncertainty -- which teachers would be replaced, and making sure that those teachers [the replacements] have the skill set that is needed," said Jane Ashdown, dean of the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education at Adelphi University. "Demographically, the K-12 population is declining, and we have seen some districts close schools. But we do know we have an increasing number of English-language learners, and making sure that we have teachers who are appropriately trained in teaching that population would be important for new hiring possibilities."
Robert Bangert-Drowns, dean of the University at Albany's School of Education, predicts a modest increase in the demand for new teachers in the near- and midterm as older teachers retire and the state recovers from the recession.
"Given the large number of aging teachers and the extensive reforms going on in K-12 education, we may see a significant number of teachers choose retirement in the next five, certainly 10, years," he said.
Teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade outnumber workers in any other occupation on Long Island, according to U.S. Census Bureau workforce data. In 2012-13, however, the total number of teachers working on the Island -- 37,000 -- and statewide was smaller than a decade earlier, reflecting layoffs and the troubled economy of recent years, in addition to retirements.
Job opportunities seen
"One of the most important impacts of these changes is that there will be more job opportunities for college graduates who want to teach," said Michael Hogan, associate dean of the College of Education, Information and Technology at LIU Post in Brookville. "I also think that the budget situation will improve in the next few years, and school districts will be able to begin hiring to reduce class size and hire teachers to meet the needs of the very diverse Long Island student population. They will have to hire more teachers or student performance will stagnate -- and that is unacceptable."
Experts said the trends have their economic roots in the recession, with some older educators choosing to stick with their jobs rather than retire, and less-experienced teachers more vulnerable to layoffs. Statewide, the average age of retirement has increased from about 57 in 2004 to nearly 61 in 2013, according to the New York State Teachers Retirement System.
Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers union, said senior teachers who perhaps had planned to retire decided to stay on because their retirement savings "took a huge hit after the market crash in 2008, or -- and this is important -- their spouses lost jobs and they decided to stay in the workforce teaching until the family savings recovered."
Regina Ruoff, 52, said she has decided to retire when she is eligible at age 55. She is in her 30th year as a special-education teacher at Newfield High School in the Middle Country school district.
"I'm ready and my husband has been retired for a number of years," she said. Ruoff also mentors younger teachers who are new to the district.
Now, "all the administration is younger than me," she said. "That is different -- they have always been older than me. When I started working here, I was the youngest teacher in the building."
As with the retirement agreements for some police and other government workers, veteran teachers who meet the necessary requirements can retire in their 50s while preserving much of their pensions. Members of the state Teachers Retirement System are organized in tiers, based on date of membership, which is typically the date of hire. There are six tiers, each with different benefit structures and eligibility rules.
For example, a Tier 4 member can elect to retire at age 55 without a reduction in benefits if credited with at least 30 years of service. The pension for 30 years of service is 60 percent of an educator's final average salary. Each year of work beyond 30 years increases the pension.
"What is happening is teaching contracts are coming up for renewal, and salaries are coming at lower rates and benefits at reduced benefits," said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer with Eastern Suffolk BOCES. "Teachers are retiring when their contracts are up and want to retire with the benefits they have."
Possible limiting factors
Several significant factors, however, will affect the slots available for teachers. Among them are government-imposed limits on school budgets, the amount of state aid to districts, and dropping enrollments.
State tax caps, first imposed in the 2012-13 school year, have taken a toll on less-experienced teachers as districts seeking to bring in budgets under local tax-levy limits have trimmed staff and student programs.
In the past three years, Lutz said, Long Island has lost 3,908 teaching positions, including 1,858 that were actual layoffs. As positions become available, those laid off should be recalled, she said.
"Layoffs and job cuts disproportionately hit newer, less senior -- and, likely, younger -- teachers on Long Island," Korn said. "While more senior teachers did lose jobs when programs were cut -- such as guidance counselors, or special programs like culinary arts, for example -- the fact is districts lopped off from the bottom based on seniority."
Declining enrollment already has made itself felt on Long Island. A number of districts, including Baldwin, Half Hollow Hills and Mineola, have closed schools in recent years and others are considering doing so.
Since 2007, public school enrollment on the Island has declined by 4 percent. Projections suggest an additional 3.9 percent decline in the region over the next three years, according to the annual Bi-County Nassau/Suffolk Public School Enrollment Report compiled by Western Suffolk BOCES' Office of School Planning and Research, released earlier this year.
Still, the New York State Labor Department reported that the projected outlook through 2020 for preschool, primary and secondary teaching jobs calls for 1,640 openings on Long Island per year, and 1,310 annually are from replacement demand.
That means "people quitting, leaving, changing jobs. I am sure a large part will be retirements," said state labor market analyst Shital Patel, who works out of the Hicksville office.
Ashdown said newly minted teachers will have opportunities in the future and Adelphi's graduates are being encouraged to look for jobs in New York City as well.
"There will be changes over the next three to five years," she said. "That is not to say we aren't seeing graduates hired -- Mineola and Huntington both hired our graduates. It is happening, but it is not like it used to be."
Anthony Agostino, 49, recalls those days. He is in his 27th year as a special-education teacher in the Middle Country school district, and he too plans to retire at 55.
"You have to realize I am considered one of the older teachers," he said. "There are not as many opportunities to get in a school district like there once were. I would remember we would hire 100 teachers a year."