Free Lance-Star reporter Amy Umble covers Stafford County schools and other education issues

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Stafford schools expand early retirement package

Stafford’s School Board last night approved expanding its early retirement program to include two more school employees. The expansion was approved 4-3, and while board members often vote unanimously, this program has divided the board since its introduction.

The program is a one-time retirement incentive package for employees ages 60 and older who have at least 25 years of service with the Virginia Retirement System. Licensed employees would receive $1,000 per year of service with Stafford County Public Schools up to $30,000. Those without licenses would get 30 percent of their fiscal year 2011 pay.

The idea is that the school system would eventually save money by replacing experienced educators with newer–and cheaper–employees. But some School Board members doubted the system would recoup much money–and thought that the initial outlay of cash would be a bad idea at a time when they’re looking at cutting positions to save dollars.

“It’s not that I don’t want to give people a going away gift,” said Patricia Healy. “But a $30,000 check at a time when we are watching every penny…is just not a good idea.”

The board did approve the plan, 4-3, last month for 20 employees who had committed to the incentive package. After that, three more employees expressed interest. When the human resources department initially polled the 73 employees eligible for the package, 20 committed and 13 said “maybe.” The rest declined or didn’t reply. After the additional three employees came forward, the human resources department polled all 13 employees who’d said “maybe.” Two said they would like to take the early retirement package.

“I couldn’t imagine being one of those two employees and finding out what we did to them, because it was such a tiny amount of time that was given for such a large decision,” said Doreen Phillips while arguing to extend the package to those two latecomers.

Dana Reinboldt, who initially voted against the package, said that allowing these two employees to take advantage of the program would set a bad precedent.

“We need to stop worrying about precedent and just do what’s right sometimes,” Phillips countered.

Meg Bohmke agreed with Phillips, saying that the decision to retire was just too important to make on such a tight deadline.

“There are emotional decisions, financial decisions,” she said. “There are meetings you have to have with your financial consultant.”

But DeWayne McCosker worried that the entire incentive package would hurt students.

“No one is more deserving of this program than our senior teachers…they deserve to go out with a good program,” he said. “This is not the fiscal environment, our budget is just terrible. This is not the time to throw $1 million up front to our teachers. Not only that, we’ll be losing our most experienced teachers at a volatile time.”

School Board members also got a sneak peek at how the state budget decisions on VRS could affect them. Director of budget and grants Patty Sullivan told the board that the changes mean the schools will have to pay 6.75 percent more for fringe benefits. And that employees will now have to contribute 5 percent of their employee benefit rates, and the schools would be expected to boost their pay to account for the change. This could be phased in over five years, by starting with a 1 percent increase. However, new hires would have to start with the 5 percent increase.

She said that this presents challenges to the administration: Namely, the HR and technology departments who will have to make significant changes to the payroll system currently in place.

“Payroll and technology [employees] already have their hands full in the month of June anyway,” Sullivan said.

Additionally, the school system will have to pay benefits costs on the money they add to the paychecks to replace the 5 percent taken out. So while it at first seems like a cost neutral change, this could actually cost the division $500,000, she said.