South Portland High School Principal Jeanne Crocker wasn’t too worried when she first heard about Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to have state workers who retire before age 65 pay in full for their health insurance coverage.

“I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that’s pretty extreme,’ but, like other proposals, it would probably work out,” she said Friday.

Now, a couple months later and a couple years earlier than expected, Crocker is saying her goodbyes to South Portland High School, where she’s worked for the past 28 years, nearly half that time as principal.

“It was only when it became apparent that the situation in Augusta that includes proposed changes in retirement was not going to be resolved, I thought that I ought to move forward,” she said.

Crocker, 56, has accepted a job as the assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, providing professional development to principals and assistant principals throughout the state.

She applied for the job in early April.

“I put it off to the very end,” Crocker said.

It was at that point she decided she’d take the job if she got it, regardless of what happened in Augusta.

Since then, there have been changes to LePage’s proposal. A new plan, unveiled earlier this month, would allow retirement benefits, including partially paid health insurance, to kick in at age 60 or 62, instead of 65 as originally proposed.

The change means Crocker could have put off retirement until age 60, when her benefits would have included 45 percent of her health insurance costs.

Retiring now gives her the option of receiving partially paid insurance immediately.

As it turns out, the cut-off for retiring under the current retirement rules was also extended from January to July 2012.

That means Crocker could have spent another year at what she calls her “No. 1 dream job” without losing her health benefit.

A Massachusetts native and Colby College graduate, Crocker taught in Waterville and in Windham before being hired in South Portland by then-Principal Ralph Baxter Sr. — the father of the current chairman of South Portland’s school board.

Ralph Baxter Jr. said he’s had two daughters — a high school graduate and a current junior — directly benefit from Crocker’s hard work and dedication to students.

He described her as a people person, who shows students she cares, and is also well-respected by the board.

“It’s a huge loss,” he said.

The news of her retirement hasn’t helped change his feelings about LePage’s plan for retirement benefits.

“It’s easy to say I don’t like it because it hits so close to home,” he said. “This is one example of a few for us, but I’m sure statewide there’s even more.”

South Portland Superintendent Suzanne Godin wouldn’t speculate about the reasons behind the 21 retirements from the district this year, but said the amount was “heavier than we’ve had the past couple of years.”

Before becoming concerned about LePage’s proposed cuts, Crocker didn’t have a plan for when she would retire, but thought she’d stay in South Portland at least a couple more years.

She hoped, for example, to lead the school through its $41.5 million renovation and expansion, approved last year, and maybe enjoy some time in the building once it was finished.

Instead, she’s savoring all the last concerts and meetings before going to her last graduation as principal next month.

“She attends every activity, every event … she’s the heart and soul of South Portland High School,” Godin said.

Losing educators like Crocker before they’re ready to retire, Baxter said, is going to take a toll.

“The experience that someone like Jeanne has, that resource for us is gone,” he said. “I can’t help but assume that’s being replicated all over the state.”

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at

[email protected]