At 64, Donald Sacre figured he still had a few good years ahead of him teaching fifth grade at Dominguez Elementary School in Carson.
But when Los Angeles Unified offered him a $15,000 bonus to retire early, the 40-year veteran teacher mulled over the idea, then seized the day.
Sacre is one of up to 150 teachers who have agreed to accept a $15,000 bonus in exchange for taking early retirement. The plan was hatched by the teachers' union and the Los Angeles Unified School District in efforts to reduce the number of extra teachers mistakenly hired last year. Union and district officials estimate that the early retirement plan will allow them to save $4 million by replacing teachers at the top of the district's pay scale with younger teachers who earn lower salaries.
It also blunts the effect of the hiring mistake, which cost the financially strapped school district $2 million in state funds. The funds are distributed on the basis of enrollment and earmarked to help pay teacher salaries. The board has already slashed $200 million from its almost $4-billion 1990-91 budget, but must cut $88 million more by June 30.
The early retirement agreement allows the district to retain 124 teaching jobs that were slated to be cut at 46 schools because of lagging student enrollment. Those teachers were hired last fall after district officials overestimated the number of inner-city students who would be bused to outlying schools in the San Fernando Valley, West Los Angeles and the Harbor area.
While parents at those schools were thrilled to have their children enrolled in classes with as few as 12 students, district officials decided in November to remove the extra teachers and use them as substitutes to save money.
The news prompted an outcry from parents, who accused the district of failing to plan properly and said their children had bonded with their teachers and would be traumatized by the switch. In addition, teachers with smaller classes said students were progressing much faster than usual.
Pressure from parents and the teachers union prompted Supt. Bill Anton to reverse his decision to remove the teachers and order a delay until February while both sides forged a compromise.
District officials have maintained that it is difficult to accurately predict the number of students who enroll in the district each year or transfer from one part of the city to another. In November, however, they admitted that someone had made a mistake in this case.
United-Teachers Los Angeles has expressed satisfaction with the compromise, however, especially in light of the historically adversarial relationship between the teachers' union and the district. In the last month, 311 teachers aged 55 and over have submitted requests and were deemed eligible for early retirement. Of those, up to 150 will be picked to retire early, say union officials, who are now in the process of matching up the extra teachers with schools where teachers are retiring early.
For instance, a surplus chemistry teacher must be matched up with a school where a veteran chemistry teacher is retiring. While the fall semester ended Friday, union officials said the process is expected to continue for the next 10 days.
Why would teachers take early retirement? Some were due to retire in June anyway, and so accepting a $15,000 bonus in exchange for taking off their last semester, even after taxes, does not seem like such a bad deal.
In Sacre's case, the longtime teacher, who says he is relatively financially secure, explained that he was looking forward to a change of lifestyle. He received a phone call Thursday from district officials and had one day to pack up after spending half a lifetime at Dominguez Elementary.
Sacre said he will miss his pupils, who include children of some of the children he taught more than 30 years ago at Dominguez, which is located on the site of an old Spanish rancho.
So how did it feel on his last day?
Sacre said the school held a special assembly to announce his departure, after which they played a ballad by pop singer Whitney Houston that talks about loving and believing in the children of the world.
"When they started playing that song, all the kids broke down and cried," Sacre said. "Then they came up to say goodby. My classroom from last year also came up. It was real emotional."