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Retired teachers forced to pay thousands

By T.J. Wilham

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    ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (KOAT) — Dozens of New Mexico teachers who answered the call to come back to work and help with the state’s teacher shortage are now being asked to repay thousands of dollars back to their retirement fund.

Last year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a new law that allows retired teachers to return to work without losing their benefits.

“They created this ability because of the vacancies, and they wanted to attract people back in,” Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers’ Federation, said. “And your standard of living can really change if you’re getting your retirement and getting a salary.”

But Target 7 has learned that dozens of teachers are being forced to repay thousands of dollars of retirement money they were receiving while coming back to work.

And it’s all over a form.

“There’s actually a document that they sign off on acknowledging when they return to work,” David Archuleta, executive director of the Education Retirement Board, said. “They do have to receive permission from ERB before doing so.”

Archuleta said the form is needed so they can determine if a teacher is eligible to return to work. He said more than 4,000 educators returned to work this year, but 42 teachers have not filled out those forms and are required to pay the money back.

“This is driven largely by the (Internal Revenue Service),” Archuleta said. “When someone violates the return to work rules– we are required to go back there and recoup the payments that are made to these individuals during their period of ineligibility.”

And for some, it has been a big bill.

“We had two violations last year. One was recouping $39,000 and another at $25,000,” Archuleta said.

State Treasurer Laura Montoya sits on the ERB and is trying to make changes. She has to vote on whether teachers — who did not fill out the form — should be forced to repay their pensions.

Montoya has been voting no. However, she has not been in the majority.

“So, if you’re taking a pension that is less than $2,000 for a person that’s making less than $1,000 a month just to help substitute teach, that is a negative impact on them and their family,” Montoya said. “I think sometimes it’s that they don’t know about it. It depends on the school district. Some people have stated that it’s in the application process that if you’ve retired, please fill out the return-to-work paperwork. Other ones say that it’s not in there at all, so they’re just unaware.”

Montoya wants school districts to make sure it is written in the application that teachers must fill out the form before returning to work. She also wants the state to change its rules that say the educators shall pay their retirement back if they’re ineligible.

“I understand what the rules are, therefore, but I know that it’s wrong,” Montoya said. “And the cases that we’re seeing, we also have to have logic as to why this rule was intended to be there and how do we implement it, change it, fix it, edit it to be able to accommodate the current circumstances that we’re in, which is the teacher shortage.”

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