Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
WASHINGTON — The Washington school board voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve early retirement benefits for teachers. The vote came after months of deliberation over the trade off between teacher experience and district budgets.
The packages allow staff to retire early in exchange for a buyout and possible insurance benefits, based on their position and tenure. Doing so would open room for teachers with less experience, and therefore lower salaries at entry-level positions.
“Right now I think we have one staff member making … $65,000 in a year, they’re at the top, they’ve been here forever,” Superintendent Willie Stone said at the board’s Aug. 10 meeting. “If they go out, we bring a new teacher in at about 35. That tells you your savings.”
Qualifying staff must be at least 55 years old, have spent at least 10 years at the district, and submit an application for early retirement by Dec. 2.
Superintendent Willie Stone said the benefit would save the district around $500,000 in the first year alone.
“Our goal is to have over 20 people retire,” Stone said in August. “Some people think of early retirement as a benefits package, it’s not. Early retirement is a scalpel for school districts to be able to manage a budget.”
In addition to financial benefits for the district, Board Member James Almelien said it gave some stability to staff exits. Rather than potentially losing educators en masse at retirement, age, he said early retirement helped stagger their exits.
“When my wife retired … there were over 10 teachers with over 40 years of experience that retired at the same time,” he said. “They lost that whole group because of age. When you’re looking at early retirement, it’s not just because of age.”
Still, some board members worried the offer created a trade off between quality and cost of teachers.
“The part that I don’t like is … the cost of losing all those teachers with that great experience and education,” Board Member Mindi Rees said. “All of a sudden we have all these young teachers coming in, which we need, but I still wish they could overlap and garner some of that knowledge that would be retired. That’s where I struggle.”
Rees said she was concerned about the experience loss concentrating in specific areas. In one building, Stone said four of the five teachers for one grade level qualified for early retirement.
Still, the superintendent said the district would face harder decisions down the road if the budget wasn’t prioritized.
“There’s a possibility of us losing a lot of veteran teachers with a lot of great educational skills,” he said. “At the same time, if we get to the point where our budget’s diving fast, we’re not going to keep teachers here that we need to keep here. We’re going to have to cut them, and cut more.”
Much of the debate since August focused on who would receive insurance benefits with early retirement. The plan approved last week allowed retiring teachers and some administrators to keep insurance benefits, while support staff like cooks, paraprofessionals, custodians and drivers would receive an additional cash bonus in lieu of insurance.
While the offer is expected to save money for the schools, it comes as buildings face workforce challenges, and the school board approved the hire of a virtual Spanish teacher to address one instance of the issue at the same Aug. 10 meeting.
Still, Stone said he was confident the district could find new personnel if it planned ahead.
“That’s why we’re doing it so early, so we can get on it early,” he said. “A lot of the positions are regular classroom positions, they’re not as many hard to fill positions. So at this time, we believe we can … we have several that are early elementary teachers. It’s easier to fill those than high school Spanish.”
The board’s decision before retirement season gives educators time to weigh their options, according to Stone.
“That would give people two months to make a life decision,” he said at the board’s September meeting. “We’ve talked about this for the last few years, so it’s not a surprise. Most of them are already prepared, but the ones that are not, I want to make sure we give them time.”
The benefits of the final plan approved at the October meeting are mostly geared toward certified staff. On top of insurance, outgoing administrators get $100,000 payouts under the plan while teachers get $25,000-$75,000 depending on the number of participants. Support employee buyouts vary by position and don’t include health insurance, with the bonuses ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.
While the district would get some savings from support staff early retirements, Stone said that amount was minimal.
“When certified staff retire, we are able to capture money, it’ll be normally around a $20,000 swing, that we’ll save,” he said at the September meeting. “On our non-certified staff, we don’t save money. The savings that we would get from it is minute in comparison to the teachers.”