Pension push: Missing paperwork could delay teacher’s retirement 7 years

A change to teacher pensions is still on the table at the state Capitol this week. Most Minnesota teachers can’t get a full pension until they’re 66 years old — unless they started before July 1989.

For an East Grand Forks teacher, some missing paperwork could keep him on the job for an extra seven years. What a difference a day makes.

Robert Hapka says nobody seems to have a record of his one day of teaching before Minnesota teacher pensions changed. That’s the difference between retiring at 60 or 67 unless the plans change again.

Teachers came to the Capitol Tuesday night pushing for a change to their pension plan. Their mission isn’t necessarily the top concern for brand new teachers.

"Right now I’m bushy-tailed, bright-eyed," said Jack Lillestol.

The recent University of Minnesota graduate starts his career in Eden Prairie this fall with a bounty of energy. He knows it can’t last forever and out in East Grand Forks, Hapka is running out of steam.

"It’s demanding, you know?" Hapka said. "And I teach shop classes, so I’m on my concrete floors and on my feet pretty much for the whole seven out of eight classes that I’m teaching right now."

Hapka is more than 30 years into his teaching career. He’s 59 years old and eight years away from retiring with a full pension under the current plan.

But he says he should’ve qualified under the previous "Rule of 90" plan where age plus years of service equaling 90 qualified a teacher for a full pension.

He says he signed a contract with Middle River School in May 1989 and substitute taught the same day. But the school consolidated with Greenbush in 1992 and nobody can find any record of the $55 he earned.

"We have a copy of the contract that I signed for employment, but nothing was dug up for the $55," Hapka said.

Minnesota currently has the third-highest full teacher pension retirement age in the country, and Hapka agrees with union leaders that some younger teachers are moving across the border to North Dakota where the pension plan kicks in sooner — at the age of 60 after 30 years of service.

Hapka himself taught in North Dakota and could retire in two years if he had stayed.

Now, a Minnesota House bill could get him a full pension after the school year he starts at age 64 instead of 66.

Schools would have to contribute an extra 1% to the pension fund and teachers an extra 0.5% to keep the fund afloat. Administrators and school boards say they believe reform is needed, and the bill is a step in the right direction.

"We do support the intent of the bill," said Kim Lewis of the Minnesota School Boards Association. "The only point we’d like to raise today is where the money would come from, and we urge that the funding of this provision should not come out of the E12 budget."

Until it changes, even energetic new teachers know some of their peers will choose to move on.

"The reality is there are a good number of teachers who — after their first three, four years — are just looking at it and saying ‘I don’t think I can make it another 36,’" Lillestol said.

As of now, the bill isn’t on any agenda and time is running out on this legislative session which is scheduled to end on Monday.