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Board tweaks early retirement

Revised incentive program to be offered this school year

SOLON– It’s a fiscal management tool first, and a reward for service second.
The Solon school board has tweaked its early retirement policy and plans to offer the incentive again for the 2014-2015 school year.
At an Oct. 13 meeting, board members unanimously approved revisions to the district’s voluntary early retirement program for certified staff, creating a set $40,000 benefit for qualifying employees who are at least 55 years of age and have completed 10 consecutive years of service to the schools.
The Solon school system has offered early retirement in the past, but since 2010, the program has been utilized every two years.
Board members did not commit to continuing that cycle, but indicated the incentive would be used when needed to help with the district’s budget.
“My first year in the district, the district was in a financial position that we were really motivated to make some reductions in the general fund,” Superintendent Sam Miller explained at the meeting.
One of the first things a school system will use is early retirement, enticing tenured teachers to leave the district so they can be replaced with lower-cost staff.
At that time, the district’s policy allowed potential retirees to select from several options, and the impact on the district budget varied depending on the length of service.
Now, the Solon schools are in a better financial position.
“This year, in talking to board members, there was really some mixed opinions as to whether early retirement should be offered,” Miller said. “And I received a lot of feedback over not continuing the plan we had offered in the past.”
Miller began working with a board committee to revise the policy into something that could be supported.
Those including changing the salary benefit to a flat $40,000 to be paid in four installments over two years, as opposed to a possible $2,000 per year of service (one of the previous options). Another previous option, paid health insurance for a single individual, has been eliminated, although district retirees have the option to continue on the district’s health and major medical policies at their own expense.
The new plan requires that the staff member be a licensed professional– an administrator, teacher, counselor, nurse or media specialist– and limits the number of early retirees to five.
If more than five apply, Miller said, there is a process for determining those to be approved based on total years of employment, where the individual falls on the salary schedule and when the application was received.
But the district has only had three-to-five staff-members exercise the option each cycle it has been offered, Miller said.
Applications for early retirement must be submitted by Dec. 1.
“It’s not as simple an issue as we might hope it’d be,” board member Tim Brown said, noting the district’s position could change as it looks to add a fourth attendance center. “What if three years from now we’re trying to get five teachers to choose early retirement– would it be enough to incentivize them to take that early retirement?”
“We’ve got to keep in mind this is a taxpayer-funded program,” board member Dean Martin said. “When we upped it, it wasn’t cost-neutral to the district or the taxpayer.”
The retirement program allowed the district to retain staff that were in jeopardy of being cut, he said, so it was an overall benefit.
“We’re not in that situation any more,” he continued. “I think a package like this is closer to cost-neutral to the district and taxpayer while still providing a benefit to employees that wish to retire early.
“It’s one tool the board has to play with the budget,” he said.
Board president Dick Schwab, who worked with Martin and Miller on the recommendation, agreed.
“It became clear to me that it’s primarily a fiscal management tool,” Schwab said. “And then secondarily, we actually do make that transition to retirement easier for teachers, but that’s not its primary purpose.”
Miller said he appreciated the board members finding an option they could support.
“We’ve got some veteran teachers who’ve given a lot of time and energy to our kids and even though this may not be where we’ve been, I’m thankful that you guys came up with something because we do have people that need to be, in my opinion, recognized for their years of service,” he said.