- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The last school year was winding down, and Fran Tankovich was dreading the thought that she no longer would be teaching her high school art students, who ranged from natural talents to diamonds in the rough.

At 60, she faced mandatory retirement because she had signed up for a deferred retirement program five years ago. At the time she enrolled, it meant more than $100,000 in extra pension money, an offer she called “too good to refuse.”

But Florida lawmakers during the spring gave Mrs. Tankovich and hundreds of other teachers facing the same situation another chance to remain in the classroom and keep their extra retirement benefits. The Legislature, which desperately needed to find more teachers because of class size limits approved by voters last fall, allowed school districts to extend the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP, for another three years. Gov. Jeb Bush signed the proposal into law in June.

About 250 teachers opted to keep working this academic year under DROP, some for the love of the job, some for the money, or both.

Hundreds of other teachers nearing retirement age were able to return this year under an alternative retirement plan, the Second Career retirement program, that allowed them to return and collect their pensions while working.

Mrs. Tankovich wanted to keep teaching but would not have stayed if Broward County hadn’t offered the extension. She couldn’t risk losing the extra money.

“It was more money than you could save as a teacher,” she said.

Mrs. Tankovich, a professional artist and teacher for 36 years, is one of five instructors and a guidance counselor who returned to J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs, just north of Fort Lauderdale.

“I’m at the height of my career,” Mrs. Tankovich said. “I still have more in me to pass on to the students.”

Unless lawmakers grant another extension in three years, teachers returning under the DROP will have to retire at that time or forfeit their extra pension payments. The Legislature passed the original program to give teachers and other state and county workers the option of working five years past retirement age — 62 or 30 years of service — while their retirement benefits accumulated and earned interest.

For George Williams, who taught American history at Taravella for 22 years, the financial incentive and his desire to keep teaching weighed equally in his decision to stay.

“Basically, at the age of 62 I am not yet burned out,” said Mr. Williams, who this fall started his 40th year of teaching. “I don’t get out of bed every day and say ‘Whoopee’ … but I do enjoy it.”

Education Commissioner Jim Horne said the decision to defer retirement needs to be mutual: the school district must need and want the teachers to stay.

“With a shortage out there and some good and professional teachers that want to stay, we need to accommodate that as best as we can,” he said.

When the governor signed the extension, he specifically mentioned Hazel Haley, an 86-year-old English teacher. Mrs. Haley is the longest-serving teacher in Florida, having taught for 66 years, nearly 64 of them at Lakeland High School. That was where she graduated in 1933.

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