ROCK HILL, SC (WIS) - School staff in South Carolina are sounding off, some emotionally, fearing the future of children's education and their own careers.
The program that allows teachers to work after retirement full-time while still receiving their full pension is set to expire this summer and it could mean thousands of staff members leave schools.
The halls of Rawlinson Road Middle School are more than familiar to Principal Jean Dickson. In the 22 years that she has been a principal, they have been like a home to her.
The veteran principal describes working with middle school students like this, "it's like a little close family," Dickson said. "In a middle school concept, you develop a family relationship."
However, Dickson has had a heavy heart lately, and many "sleepless nights" thinking over her career and what's next as her time at Rawlinson may soon be up.
"It's very…it will be very emotional…to see the kids and the teachers that you've worked with," Dickson tearfully said. "I just never really, well...I think about it but sometimes it just really hits me like just now."
Dickson wants to work for at least eight more years, but after her program, the Teacher & Employee Retention Incentive ends this June 30, she will only be able to make up to $10,000 each year and still keep her pension.
While some critics call it double-dipping, Dickson says the program really benefits students across South Carolina.
"What I'm afraid for our state is that we're going to have a teacher shortage, an educator shortage, not just teachers," she explains.
There is a bill in the state senate, sponsored by Senator Mike Fanning (D- Fairfield) that would do away with the salary cap for full-time teachers receiving pensions.
That's the fix teachers like Dickson want.
"We need a band-aid. We need a tourniquet, because we're bleeding right now in South Carolina with thousands of teachers retiring leaving classrooms we need some way to have a body in front of those kids this coming August," Fanning said when the bill cleared a Senate subcommittee.
According to the Public Employee Benefit Authority, (PEBA), there were 3,376 school faculty members in the same program as Dickson as of July 1, 2017.
That leaves Dickson to wonder about the overall picture, of recruiting and keeping teachers in the state. "I don't have grandchildren yet, but I worry. I worry…about my grandchildren. Will they even have a school to go to- or, decent teachers, good teachers?"
Dickson urged lawmakers to act on the bill to eliminate the cap, fast. She has to decide whether or not she's coming back for another year to work in her school in May.