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As long as retired educators step aside from working in public schools for at least a year, they can come back to work and keep their pensions, with no approval or documentation needed from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.

Retired educators are ordinarily limited to earning roughly $28,000 on top of their retirement pay if they go back to work in California public schools. If they earn more, the teachers pension system whittles down how much they receive from their pension. Exceptions typically have to be approved by school districts and submitted to CalSTRS.

But if an educator retires and doesn’t work in California public schools for a year, they can earn unlimited pay on top of their pension. That quirk in the law was supposed to end in January 2008, as we first reported in this story about educators who got a bonus to leave San Diego Unified and were later rehired. The CalSTRS spokeswoman recently informed me that the exemption has been extended to June 30, 2009.

Why does this matter? It means that it can be tough to track the full extent of the phenomenon we documented in this article — educators getting the “golden handshake” bonus offered by San Diego Unified in 2003, then returning to work — because retirees’ return to public school employment doesn’t need to be approved by the school board to keep their pensions intact. Most of the administrators we wrote about had to be approved by the school board to get exempted from the state post-retirement earnings limit — and that’s how we noticed them.

And it’s worth noticing because employees who took the bonus, then came back, are a potential drain on the savings that San Diego Unified expected it would generate by replacing senior employees with lower-earning staffers.

EMILY ALPERT

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