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Call it education's revolving door, the retire/hire spin cycle that has witnessed an unprecedented 163 new teachers in the Niagara Falls School District within the past four years.

"You can feel the energy in the buildings," said Timothy J. Bellonte, a science teacher in the district. "With all those new teachers, the excitement is palpable. It can change the culture of a building."

There are 650 teachers in Niagara Falls, an urban school district where enrollment this year is projected at 8,950. The 163 teachers hired since 1995 represents one-quarter of the teaching population, a turnover not experienced since the 1960s, according to the president of the Niagara Falls Teachers.

"When I was hired back in 1968, I was part of the last of the young people hired," said Robert Laub. "I walked in off the street and got my job, there was such a teacher shortage. For so long, we were the youngest people. Today the seven-year recall lists are exhausted. It tells us the faculty is aging."

More than 201,000 public school teachers are headed for retirement in the next 10 years, according to the state Education Department. In addition, the median age for school teachers has climbed to 45.

In Niagara Falls, 137 teachers have retired since 1995, and while the district has not witnessed the "bailout" experienced by other districts, there is little question that a recently introduced incentive package has spurred many teachers to retire.

"At age 55, you have to make a decision in this district," said Laub. "Many people at age 55 are not ready to retire. They want to teach for a couple more years. On the other hand, some people at age 51 want to get out early. They've had it; they're burned out."

Included in the incentive package for those teachers who retire at age 55 is a lifetime of medical benefits, Laub explained. Other teachers, depending on their tier of employment, would have to work until age 62 to obtain full benefits. Still, other teachers could retire as early as age 50 under the incentive plan.

"If I'm 50, I can go," Laub added, "but I can't collect a pension check until I'm 55."

Currently, there are 500 applications for full-time teaching positions on file in the Niagara Falls Department of Human Services, according to department personnel.

Still retirement is not for everyone.

"It's an individual, personal thing," Laub said. "You replace a teacher at one salary level with a teacher at half the cost. You are sacrificing experience, but bringing in new people with new ideas.

"Incentives open up job opportunities for our graduates," Laub said. "It keeps them in our state."

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