To Disagree, But
Will Vote Feb. 28
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Board of Education plans to choose Feb. 28 among four options for the future of the system's retirement benefits program.
Feb. 28 is the date of the board's next regular meeting.
During a budget workshop on Monday at Central Office, Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk asked that the school board narrow the options before asking her to calculate the annual cost of each one.
The board has spent nearly a year discussing the matter and remains clearly divided on the issue of retirement bonuses, largely as a result of last year's property tax increase for the school system.
Dr. Kirk first brought the matter before the board because the current program lacks stability in that, if all the teachers who currently qualify for retirement should decide to do so in one year under the existing retirement bonus program, the school system could not afford the expense.
The situation was the same during the 2012-2013 budgeting cycle, but the school board agreed to continue the program with $388,000 budgeted for it.
Should every teacher who qualifies for retirement rush to retire this year to ensure receipt of the agreed-upon benefit, it would cost the school system $918,000.
Kirk requested that the board revise the program in a manner that would result in a stable annual cost and an eventual reserve that would guarantee the system's ability to actually pay the promised bonus.
She recommended, however, that any such changes not apply to those who would be able to retire under the program now or within the next five years, both to avoid a rush on the program and to hold the system to its promise to those who are nearing retirement.
As the program stands today, benefits include a bonus at retirement equal to 35 percent of the teacher's salary at the time of retirement.
This, according to Budget Director Mary Lou Woolsey, typically averages between $15,000 and $16,000.
In order to qualify for the bonuses, teachers must have spent at least 20 years with the Greene County School System and must either have 30 years' total experience or have reached 60 years of age or older.
Retirees may also continue under the system's insurance program until they are eligible for Medicare.
(Similar benefits are available for the system's non-certified staff, but very few remain with the system for that period of time, and those that do retire with much lower salaries, making these benefits far more manageable, Woolsey has explained.)
THE FIRST OPTION
At the school board workshop on the subject on Monday, board member Nathan Brown was the first to propose an option for consideration. He made the following recommendations:
* The system maintains the $388,000 annual amount budgeted for retirement bonuses. Any year in which this total is not spent, the system budgets the remaining funds into a reserve.
* The program does not change for those retiring within the next five years.
* For those who have already worked 15 to 24 years, the system would offer a 30- percent-of-salary retirement bonus after 30 years.
* For those who have worked 14 years or less, the system would offer a 25-percent-of-salary retirement bonus after 30 years.
* There would not be a window limiting when teachers could receive this bonus after the 30 years in order to avoid the program's becoming an incentive for teachers to retire.
* For all those who have not yet served 30 years, the system would calculate their retirement bonus based on the 30th year's salary.
THREE OTHER OPTIONS
Chairman Roger Jones then proposed three other options built around this proposal, for which he asked Kirk to calculate an estimated annual cost:
* Brown's proposal, with a three-year window in which teachers may retire after 30 years to receive the bonus;
* ending the program entirely after five years; and,
* maintaining the program as is, with no changes.
"If you can get [the annual projected cost of each scenario] in our hands this week, I think we can make a good decision. We've beat this horse to death," Jones told Kirk.
"Everybody study them and ask all the questions you need to ask," he added, addressing the board.
"Let's come back then, with all of us coming together on [Feb. 28] at our meeting, and we're going to make a decision about the retirement program."
Board members Kathy Austin and Deborah Johnson made it clear that they would prefer significant changes to the program, or perhaps ending it -- an idea that prompted pointed disagreement from board members Kathy Crawford and Tommy Cobble.
Both Crawford and Cobble staunchly defended the program, saying the system should not be speaking of "taking away from teachers."
Johnson, however, said that it is not taking away because the program is now under negotiation and is not promised to the teachers.
Both Johnson and Austin expressed concern with maintaining the program should other needs arise for the system that may require additional funding.
"It's our decision we have to make year-after-year with this," Brown agreed. "If it comes up we're in some bad place, it's up to us to make the decision and do what we have to do with it -- even if that's not doing it or rolling it back.
"We're planning for it in the future, and we're trying to set something so we have a way to pay for it in the future. But it may not work."
Should such a time come that the board needed more funding, Brown said he would not agree to keep the retirement program in place while asking for another tax increase.
Jones noted that the program was put in place decades ago as a way to encourage teachers to stay with the school system, despite the county system's inability to compete with teacher salaries paid by some other school systems in the region.
"This benefit is starting to harm students today because we could have seven or eight more teachers," Austin said of the $388,000 currently budgeted.
Johnson agreed, and called it "rhetoric" to say that the system's teachers are "underpaid."
She passed out a document that she had put together comparing Greene County's teacher salaries with those paid by Hamblen, Washington and Grainger counties.
The document shows Greene County with an average $48,000 teacher salary and a general county median income of $34,000.
All three other districts have a lower average teacher salary despite a similar or higher median income, according to Johnson.
She attributed this information to teachersalaryinfo.com, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics 2009 and the Department of Numbers/Census ACS Data 2011.
She called on the board to distribute the money to other employees, suggesting bus drivers, new teachers and custodians.
"We've got to think about the community as a whole as well," Austin said, noting that the retirement bonus per teacher is nearly equal to what some in the community earn in a year.
The workshop ended with no consensus among the board members on the issue.