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Sonoma County's workforce is aging at an unprecedented rate and teachers are at the fore with the largest concentration of older workers of any occupation.

More than one-third of the county's educators are 55 or older and age-eligible to retire, well ahead of real estate, health care and social assistance, according to a 2013 economic indicators report from the Sonoma County Development Board.

The wave of potential retirements comes at the same time that colleges and universities are turning out significantly fewer teacher candidates from their initial credentialing programs.

"We are just going through into uncharted waters," said Ben Stone, executive director of the board. "I don't think any culture in history has gone through this kind of demographic shift."

Across California, more than 30 percent of teachers are 50 to 62 years old. Slightly more than 4 percent are 63 years or older.

"I do know that I have been told that if you have more than 25 percent of staff transitioning at any one particular time, that gets to be problematic," said Wally Holbrook, superintendent of the Lake County Office of Education where 35 percent of the teaching ranks is age-eligible to retire.

Experts caution that retirements are hard to anticipate because while 55 is the retirement threshold, many teachers don't qualify for maximum retirement benefits until about seven years later.

And just because a teacher is "age eligible" to retire doesn't mean he will or should, said Jeff Heller, assistant superintendent of human resources at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

"That institutional knowledge is something that you can't replace," he said. "That is definitely a concern when you have those huge numbers."

The percentage of teachers who were age-eligible to retire in Sonoma County hit a peak last year at 37 percent. This year, the percentage dropped to 31 percent, according to Heller.

That means of more than 3,780 active teachers in Sonoma County last year, approximately 1,390 were age-eligible to retire, although there are many variables within that category, including years of actual service. About 160 did retire — well above the 125 in an average year.

It is hard to prepare for spikes in retirements, according to district officials.

Districts are often in the dark about the number of teachers who will retire in a given year because the decision can be deeply personal for some and can cause job insecurity for others, said Molly McGee Hewitt, executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials.

"You keep a running account of your employees, but it's hard," she said. "A lot of people are afraid to declare, 'If I say I'm going to retire, is it going to affect me here?'"

The natural surge of baby-boomer teachers approaching retirement has been exacerbated by an economy that hit the skids in the 2007-08 school year, causing deep budget cuts, shorter school years and prompting many teachers to hit pause on their post-classroom plans.

"When the economy got really difficult, people who were planning to retire stopped retiring," McGee Hewitt said.

In Sonoma County's second-largest school district, officials have in the past used retirement incentives to attempt to manage the percentage of teachers who leave every year, said Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Steve Bolman.

But numbers can remain unpredictable for a variety of reasons, he said.

"You can't control that necessarily as a district because you hire teachers as you need them and they become tenured teachers, and good teachers serving your district," he said. "The one way you can control it on occasion is with incentives."

Managing retirements also means being able to better manage the threat of layoffs for newer teachers as California's school districts try to weather budget cuts.

"We have thrown that out there to keep our good, young teachers, to keep away from layoffs," Bolman said of occassional retirement bonuses.

With the economy largely on the mend, those teachers who did hold off on retirement are now reconsidering their options in many places.

For veteran teacher Jake Fitzpatrick, 63, the decision was largely practical but the fallout is more emotional.

The Santa Rosa High School science and physical education teacher has spent nearly 38 years in the classroom and was first tempted to consider retirement in 2009 when Santa Rosa City Schools offered a rare retirement incentive.

But staying in the classroom another few years means for Fitzpatrick an additional $1,500 a month in retirement benefits. And leaving midyear — his last day is Friday — allows him to return to the classroom in 2014-15 after a state-mandated waiting period should he choose to substitute teach or coach.

"I'm going to have a nice retirement because I have so many years in the system," he said.

In Mendocino County, the surge of retirements began affecting personnel ranks three years ago, said county Superintendent Paul Tichinin, "and will continue probably, steadily for another three to five years," he said.

"Fort Bragg ... in the last three years they have hired 25 new teachers. That is over 10 percent," Tichinin said.

The trend has school officials looking for younger teachers to join the ranks, but the number of teachers available has fallen off in recent years, said Sonoma County's Heller.

"I think fewer and fewer students are going into that field," he said. "We are seeing that throughout the state of California — there is not as much enrollment in the education programs."

The number of teacher candidates who completed the requirements for initial teaching credentials fell 32 percent between 2007-08 and 2011-12, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

"It's something we are watching and keeping our eye on," said Karen Ricketts, regional director of the North Coast regions beginning teacher program.

Budget cuts and high-profile layoffs of less senior teachers can scare off potential teachers, said Andy Brennan, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association.

"It has lots to do with the recession — they were laying off teachers by droves," he said. "In general, those are the less senior teachers so a lot of people got discouraged and went into another field."

The Economic Development Board's Stone said the numbers show an opportunity both for young professionals as well as professional development programs to foster teaching as a career.

"If you want to be a teacher, there has been no better time since 1946 to be teacher," he said. "There is going to be a demand."

For Fitzpatrick, retirement brings conflicting emotions.

He offered old science exams, lesson plans and other materials to colleagues but much of it went untouched. He put in the recycle bin.

"That was hard, that was hard," he said. "You think, 'There goes a career.'"

"It's not like construction where you can pour the concrete and build the building and go back and say 'Hey, I built that,'" he said. "It's in the minds and hearts of the kids you worked with over the years. Hopefully some of them are better for it."

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)