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Retirees pepper Stafford School Board with questions

More than 200 current and retired Stafford County educators showed up Thursday night to ask questions about the upcoming demise of the school division’s early retirement plan.

The plan violated a combination of IRS and state regulations, Brenda O’Brien, Stafford schools’ director of payroll and benefits, told the crowd.

Last week, retirees and those considering retirement learned that the School Board planned to end the early retirement incentive plan known as the Bridge Program. Participants in the program immediately protested both the proposal to end the program and the way it was announced.

Bridge participants learned about the changes when they showed up as an informational item on the School Board’s agenda for the March 12 meeting.

At that meeting, School Board members said that the program violated state and federal law but didn’t offer details.

Thursday night, O’Brien explained that the Bridge Program pays retirees wages for not working, which is not allowed under IRS regulations. The plan would be allowable as a pension, O’Brien said, but under Virginia law, school divisions can’t offer pension plans. On the advice of counsel, O’Brien declined to say which Virginia code prohibited school divisions to run pensions.

O’Brien said that Stafford County could offer a pension and school employees could participate, but the county participates only in the state retirement system.

So, the School Board is considering a substitute early retirement program, which would give retirees a portion of their last year’s pay for a percentage of work. For example, an educator with a 200-day contract would work 20 days if the percentage of work was 10 percent.

The proposal before the School Board now offers 10 percent of pay for 15 percent of work.

Richmond attorney Patrick Lacy, who represents Stafford schools and advised them in this issue, said in an interview earlier this week that many school divisions in Virginia offer a similar plan, known as a work for pay program.

Some speakers said they understood the legal issues but didn’t like the new proposal because it required a greater percentage of work than the percentage of pay offered.

“The freebie is gone, that’s fine, but we want something that’s fair and equitable,” said former Dixon–Smith Middle School principal Steve Trant.

More than 20 people—educators, retirees and spouses of retirees—spoke at the meeting. Many of them said they felt as if they’d been slapped in the face or that the rug had pulled out from under them.

And they felt betrayed by the School Board’s quick announcement. The board had been scheduled to vote on the plan next week, but took it off the agenda after several speakers said it felt as if the school division was rushing to a decision that could have a significant impact on the retirees’ lives.

The timeline presented called for official notice of the proposal’s change to go out to employees and retirees on April 1, and for those people to decide by May 1 whether to participate in the replacement early retirement plan.

Retired guidance counselor Robin DiPeppe said, “This program has been around for 30 years and you’re asking people to rearrange their lives in a matter of weeks.”

Speaker after speaker said that they dedicated their professional lives to Stafford schools but now felt as if their service was not appreciated.

“Stafford County is sending the message that veteran teachers are not worth the money, that they are easily replaceable,” said teacher Suzanne Wilson.

The meeting came just two days after hundreds of Stafford teachers showed up at the Board of Supervisors meeting to advocate for raises. And many speakers said that the back-to-back meetings give the impression that the county is trying to take advantage of educators.

“My concern is: First, it’s the Bridge, what’s going to be next?” said Theresa Thompson, president of Stafford’s Education Association. “Every year, teachers and staff have to fight and beg for a salary increase and a step. I don’t want this work for pay program or whatever you call it to be something else we have to fight for when we really have earned it.”

In a discussion after the meeting, School Board members talked about taking more time to create a replacement program and on getting a second legal opinion on the necessity of ending the Bridge Program.

The school division has had the Bridge Program for about 17 years. In December, an employee asked a question about the program’s maximum age, O’Brien said. Participants had to leave the program at 65, and some people now don’t qualify for Social Security benefits until they are 66 or 67. When the schools’ benefits department sent that question to legal counsel, they learned that the age limit was not the only concern. In the following months, the School Board met in several closed sessions to talk about the legal issues involved.

In their discussion Thursday night, School Board members expressed a desire to work with employees to craft a replacement program for the Bridge and to have the hours to dollars ratio be even in a work to pay option.

And they said that they wished they’d been more open with employees about the process.

“I would like to apologize to the employees that we did not have more transparency,” School Board member Meg Bohmke said.

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973