EAST MONTPELIER — Bracing for a brutal budget season they were told may force them to seriously consider cutting staff, members of the Washington Central School Board have approved an administrative recommendation that will essentially incentivize early retirement in the five-town district.
The proposal provoked mixed reviews during Wednesday night’s virtual board meeting and that division was ultimately reflected in the, 8-4, vote approving a plan to extend the early retirement offer to 55 eligible employees across the pre-K-12 district anchored by U-32 Middle and High School.
Citing “dire” financial projections that could influence a fiscal year that won’t start for another 13 months, Interim Superintendent Debra Taylor pitched the plan she said enjoyed her support, the endorsement of incoming superintendent Brian Olkowski and the backing of administrators across the six-school district.
The board-approved proposal will guarantee the mix of professional and support staff who accept the offer by Sept. 15 50 percent of their annual salary paid in three annual installments and one year of continued health insurance with the district paying 80 percent of the premiums for a single plan.
The plan is to extend that offer to the 55 employees who have worked for some facet of the now-merged school system for at least 15 years and whose age and years of service add up to at least 70.
Board members were told 28 professional staff and 27 support staff fit that profile and administrators expect roughly 40 percent of them might opt for early retirement.
Taylor said that would save money, provide administrators and the board with flexibility when budget season rolls around and be a “humane” alternative to eliminating positions based on seniority.
“It would be an opportunity to make decisions that could result in reduced staff without the pain of a reduction in force, which … is really challenging and … has long term effects,” she said.
Assuming 22 employees accept the offer and four of those positions are left vacant, Taylor said the district would save more more than $500,000 over four years, with nearly half of that savings – $227,000 – anticipated in the fiscal year that will start July 1, 2021.
School Directors Stephen Looke and Lindy Johnson, were skeptical savings would be realized, while others, including board members Chris McVeigh and Diane Nichols-Flemming worried about inviting an exodus of seasoned teachers, administrators and support staff at a time when their experience could be a crucial commodity.
Looke said he “strenuously opposed” an idea that had been deployed in the past without achieving the hoped for results.
“I don’t think we can afford to do this,” he said. “It’s going to cost us money it’s not going to save us money in the near term and it’s the near term when we need to save money.”
Johnson agreed noting past promises of savings associated with similar programs have never materialized and questioning the wisdom of arbitrarily rewarding people for what some might do anyway and others are doing without any incentives this year.
“I really have problems with the early retirement system,” she said.
Nichols-Flemming and McVeigh said the too were torn with respect to a plan that was proposed in response to a grim financial forecast caused by public health crisis that has shuttered school across the state and has had students learning from home since mid-March.
It isn’t yet clear what public education in Vermont will look like when August rolls around and – money aside – Nichols-Flemming said she wasn’t certain encouraging early retirement was a prudent strategy.
“Is it wise for us to encourage our most experienced teachers to be leaving when we actually might need (their) guidance as this changing landscape happens?” she asked.
McVeigh sounded a similar concern noting the projected savings – if realized – amount to less than 1 percent of the district’s $30 million budget.
“I’m not convinced savings justifies losing experienced staff,” he said.
School Director Flor Diaz-Smith said she was initially skeptical, but was swayed by the projected savings and the assertion if staff reductions are required that conversation would be comparatively painless if the board had a set menu of soon-to-be-vacant positions to consider.
“It’s more humane,” she said, echoing the word Taylor used at the outset to frame the discussion.
Taylor said there was value in being able to bank on savings associated with replacing employees at high end of the salary schedule with less expensive alternatives and a strategic advantage in being able to consider eliminating some of those positions through attrition.
At times Taylor spoke more certainly than others about the prospect of having to issue reduction in force (RIF) notices to staff due to budget constraints next year, prompting Nichols-Flemming to express concern about that message.
“I do not want it reported out of this board meeting that we have an understanding that our staff are going to be RIFed,” she said. “We haven’t even begun that fight.”
Taylor said the proposal wasn’t intended to get ahead of the board, but rather to provide it with more palatable options heading into a budget season when spending reductions could be encouraged, if not required.
The discussion ended with an, 8-4, virtual vote that will give employees eligible for the early retirement package ample time to weigh the board’s offer before making a decision by the mid-September deadline.
By then Taylor will have moved on, Olkowski will have settled in as superintendent and work on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2021 will just be getting under way.