The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Stafford change dismays school retirees
Marilyn Butters considers Stafford County schools her second home—she started teaching sixth grade in 1979 and retired in 2010 as an elementary school principal.
But now she feels betrayed by the school system. Under a proposed change to school policy, Butters and more than 100 other retired Stafford educators stand to lose their early retirement income.
Retired educators and those considering early retirement were dismayed to learn that the Bridge Program, which offers Stafford employees a portion of their pay for up to seven years, is going to end.
The program provides an incentive for teachers who aren’t yet Social Security age to retire early, which can save Stafford money if those educators are replaced with younger, less-experienced teachers.
But the School Board members said that their hands are tied—the Bridge Program doesn’t comply with IRS rules and is illegal.
“The plan has to end in its current form; as it currently exists, it must end,” Chairwoman Stephanie Johnson said.
The schools’ finance department asked a lawyer to review a part of the early retirement program after a question arose last year, said Valerie Cottongim, spokeswoman for the school division. The lawyer answered the question and then told finance staff that there was a problem with the policy itself.
The issue is that public money can’t be used to pay people for not working, Johnson said.
In December, School Board members learned about that issue. The school system’s benefits department also contacted the IRS to find out if the policy violates regulations.
For two months, the School Board held a few closed sessions with legal counsel to explore the matter. As the meetings continued, it became clear that the Bridge Program had to end.
The program gives early retirees 10 percent of their annual pay for their last year worked. So if someone earned $50,000 in their last year working for Stafford schools, they would get $5,000 each year they are in the Bridge Program.
Participants can stay in the program for seven years or until they receive Social Security benefits, whichever happens first. With some restrictions, participants can hold down jobs while taking part in the program.
Now, 114 people participate in the program, drawing an average annual payment of $7,500.
The program will cost the school division $1.4 million this fiscal year.
At last Tuesday night’s School Board meeting, retirees complained about the program’s demise—and about the fact that they weren’t told about the changes, but learned about them while reading the meeting’s agenda.
“Everything about this proposal is punitive,” said former Dixon–Smith Middle School Principal Steve Trant, who retired from Stafford schools in 2011. “What have we done to deserve this?”
Retirees wondered if the School Board was pulling the plug on the Bridge Program to save money.
“The budget is not the driving force here,” School Board member Patricia Healy said. “This is an issue of compliance with state and federal laws. This program has to end and it has to end on June 30 in its current form.”
The School Board will consider a proposal to change the program into what’s known as a work-for-pay retirement plan.
In that plan, retirees could receive 10 percent of their pay if they worked for the school division for 15 percent of the days that were in their contract for their last year of work.
So if a retiree was a 200-day employee in his last year of work, he would have to work 30 days.
The School Board would allow retirees on the Bridge Program to do the work for pay for one year after the program ends.
The board has not voted on the proposal and will hold an informational meeting on Thursday.March 21
For many educators, the informational meeting is too little, too late. They were outraged to learn about the proposed changes in a meeting agenda and not a more personal letter.
“Who decided to not recall the feelings of dedicated loyal career professionals when posting an agenda item such as this?” Butters asked. “We found out about something that could be life changing for ourselves and many others by reading it in an agenda.”
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
The Stafford School Board will hold an informational meeting about proposed changes to the Bridge Program at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Alvin York Bandy Administrative Complex. The meeting will be televised.