To fund a 1 percent raise for its teachers, the Douglas County School District is soon phasing out a portion of its severance program that awards departing teachers about $37,000 each.
According to language the board approved July 3, teachers eligible for retirement who want to receive the full payment must decide whether to step down by July 25.
Teachers’ union leaders say the district has failed to alert teachers to the rapidly approaching date, and say the decision isn’t fair to those nearing retirement.
“All employees who elect to retire and who notify the district by July 25, 2012, will receive 100 percent of their (extended service severance),” the district’s Compensation and Benefits Program explains. “All employees who are considering this option should talk with their immediate supervisor as soon as possible. All other (severance) will be phased out. This phase-out program is TBD and all details will be sent to employees as soon as the final plan is complete.”
District spokesman Randy Barber said the change is needed to finance the already-approved 1 percent raise.
“We’re working hard to strike that balance between what’s best for all the employees in the district and what we can afford,” he said.
The problem, some teachers say, is that the district hasn’t made the July 25 cutoff date widely known. It’s part of the “Compensation and Benefits Program,” document, but was not mentioned during the July 3 board meeting, in a July 13 email about recent changes sent to employees, or in a videotaped address to teachers from Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen posted July 13 on the district’s website.
The Douglas County Federation sent a letter to its members July 10, alerting them to the approaching deadline.
“Since the district and (board) have failed to inform their employees of the following information, we believe we need to in their place,” reads the email sent by DCF vice president Courtney Smith.
The collective bargaining agreement between the union and district expired June 30 when, despite more than 100 hours of negotiation, the two groups failed to reach an agreement. If it were still in place, the severance program would be untouched, DCF president Brenda Smith said.
“It’s a big loss to those employees who were counting on these dollars,” she said, adding that the July 25 date doesn’t give potential retirees time to plan. “It’s mis-treatment of employees. It saddens me because they make these unilateral decisions. Their true belief is, if it doesn’t impact a lot of people, we’re not worried about it.”
Barber said the district is not trying to keep the date quiet.
“That definitely was not the intention,” he said, noting the district has set up a new “Commitment to Employees” link on its website designed specifically to relay up-to-date information to its staff.
Since the CBA’s expiration, the district has worked hard to address issues outlined in it, he said.
“We’re just moving compensation around. Compensation hasn’t been decreased at all,” he said. “There are plenty of rumors out there, but the truth is, we’re moving forward with our employees’ best interests in mind.”
The board held a special meeting July 3 to formally approve the raise, 1 percent retention bonus and other benefits.
To finance the raise, the district plans to phase out three existing teachers’ compensation programs. Some of the money that funds them will go into a new compensation plan based on teacher performance.
But that won’t happen overnight. Current programs that reward teachers based on the number of years they’ve taught and continuing education will be phased out.
“We thank our employees for their patience during this time of change,” Barber said.
“We don’t necessarily have all the answers yet. There’s going to be more clarity as we move on.”
The extended-service severance payouts, however, awarded to those who’ve taught at least 15 years and are eligible for public retirement benefits, will be eliminated much more quickly. The district needs $2.8 million to finance the 1 percent, across-the-board pay increase, and funds designated for severance payouts were chosen as the source.
“We’ve looked at the budget in depth,” Barber said. “This is sort of the place we believe that money could come from.”
Roughly 100 district employees retire each year, with teachers receiving an average payout of $37,000 and support staff about $12,000 each. More than 400 are eligible for retirement in the next five years.
“This truly impacts a fairly small group of folks,” Barber said. “We want to make sure we use the money wisely. We know teachers have been in four years of pay freeze.”
District officials see the severance program as problematic because it rewards teachers for leaving; they’d like instead to offer incentives to stay.
The board was to discuss the compensation package at its July 17 meeting.