County School Bd.
Agrees To Decrease
The Program Over
A Period Of Time
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Retirement benefits for Greene County School System employees proved to be a point of contention between employees and members of the Greene County Board of Education on Thursday.
The board finally brought the matter to a vote after spending more than a year attempting to stabilize the financial viability of the loyalty bonus program.
The vote, before a standing-room-only audience of teachers and administrators, will result in a gradual decrease in the program over the next 15 years, with no additional funds budgeted each year beyond the existing $388,000 per year.
Any savings will roll back into a fund --which has not yet been set up -- for the retirement bonuses, according to a motion made by board member Nathan Brown.
Brown also added that, after those qualifying within the next five years have retired, the retirement bonus should be based on the employee's salary in his or her 30th year of teaching.
"What we're planning on doing is actually planning on this for in the future instead of just saying, 'Well, we hope we have money this year, we hope we have money next year,'" he said.
Board members Rex Hopson, Brown, Tommy Cobble, Kathy Crawford and Chairman Roger Jones voted in favor of Brown's motion.
Brown and Cobble each read a conflict of interest statement prior to their vote due to the fact that Brown's wife and Cobble's son work for the county school system.
The statement essesntially acknowledges the existence of a conflict of interest but goes on to state that the person making the statement is voting for what he or she believes to be in the public interest.
Board members Kathy Austin and Deborah Johnson, who both supported other options for dealing with the retirement loyalty bonus issue, voted "Present."
The board agenda called for consideration of four options for resolving the retirement bonus program question:
1) no change, with a 20-year total liability of $7.5 million and an approximate annual cost of $376,000;
2) discontinuing the bonus after five years, with a total liability of $1.8 million and an approximate annual cost of $372,000;
3) decreasing the bonus from 35 percent of the retiree's salary at retirement to 30 percent for those not qualifying within the next five years, and to 25 percent for those not qualifying within the next 15 years, with a total 20-year liability of $6.3 million and an approximate annual cost of $316,000; and,
4) decreasing the percentages as above but only providing the bonus within a three-year window of the time of retirement, which would feature the same cost and liability as the third option.
All options ensured that there would be no change to the program for anyone qualifying for it within the next five years.
The board voted to approve the third option, with Brown's modifications.
LACK OF STABILITY
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.
County Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk first brought the matter before the board because the program lacked 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.
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.
Kim Francis, president of the Greene County Education Association, which negotiates for teachers in the system, spoke prior to the vote and called on the board to recognize teachers as more than "simply glorified babysitters."
She said that the retirement bonus is a key part of the benefit package and aids the system in keeping the best, most experienced teachers.
Teachers and administrators have attended en masse a few meetings at which the board has discussed this matter, and many have not been hesitant to let their thoughts on the matter be known in muttered statements and even jeers from the audience.
This occurred several times on Thursday when Johnson and Austin spoke, including when they replied to Brown's retirement bonus proposal with prepared statements.
"Rather than focusing on loyalty bonuses, I would like to see us look at the total compensation package we offer the employees," Johnson said.
She went on to highlight that package, which she said includes payment of the total cost of employees' health care, $10,000 life insurance, continuing education and career ladder salary increases, and higher percentages than employees pay into their retirement.
"I think that we need to start celebrating the whole compensation package that we provide for our employees," she said. "The loyalty bonus, as it is currently structured, is ill-conceived, and the funding is set up for failure.
"We need to look at our complete compensation package and see if this can be a part of the whole, or if we should just scrap the entire thing," Johnson said.
Austin also expressed her concerns with continuing the bonus program, questioning how the system could continue to afford putting these funds into retirements rather than directly into instruction.
"I don't think anyone wants to take anything away from our teachers," she said, explaining that she has long supported school system employees.
She called it responsible of Dr. Kirk to bring the matter to the board and noted that it has been under discussion for three years.
"We had to use one-time money to fund the bonuses last year [2011-2012] out of [federal] Jobs Bill money, and part of the tax increase was used to pay the bonuses this year," she said.
"Will it cost us to maybe have to close a school again, or the threat of closing a school? Or will it possibly cost another tax increase?"
Austin recommended that, before agreeing to continue the loyalty bonus, the system meet the requirement of auditing practices and determine the system's full post-retirement benefit liability.
"We don't know what we can responsibly offer to employees and still be fiscally responsible," she concluded.
Jones, as chairman, looked out to the crowd in discouragement over the audible negative reaction to the prepared statements read by Johnson and Austin.
He also occasionally used the palm of his hand (rather than his gavel) to pound the table and call for attention.
Kirk also seemed to quietly discourage the vocal behavior, looking out on the crowd and slightly shaking her head in discouragement of the comments being made to some board members from the audience.
The crowd of largely teachers and administrators quieted some but still persisted, prompting Austin to address the matter near the close of the meeting.
"Teachers, I do appreciate you. I always have. But it's hard being a board member, too," she said. "We are accountable first to the children, just as you are. We are accountable to our employees and to the complete public.
"Yes, you're taxpayers, too, but we represent the whole," Austin noted.
"We try to help our employees out as much as we can. It would be nice if the board members could be supported as well," she concluded.