I encourage everyone to speak at school board meetings. That is one way the board keeps abreast of what parents, taxpayers, students and employees are thinking. Below is Rosie Jordan, who was a post-TERI employee of the school district, speaking at the March 28, 2011 school board meeting. The district ended up granting some exemptions to the rules, but there is more than Ms. Jordan’s point of view when it comes to this issue.
The Rest Of The Story:
Let’s face it. With revenue growth slowing, the school district is not going to be able to pay employees step and cost of living increases each and every year like before. To keep them motivated, the district must offer them more besides annual pay raises and one such thing is an opportunity for advancement.
To do that, I think the district must do three things:
1) Maximize the opportunities for advancement. This is where the TERI program is an issue.
2) Focus on mentoring and training employees who aspire to climb in the organization. That is the responsibility of the personnel department.
3) Promote internally. The board of 2010 is focused on that, as demonstrated this summer when it promoted from within to fill three department leadership positions and that set off a series of 17 internal promotions among the management ranks. Since then we’ve hired the directors of Special Ed and Curriculum and the Superintendent from among the ranks.
Limited Opportunities For Advancement:
Upward mobility is limited in state agencies because of the lucrative retirement system. Once in the system, few leave hoping to reach retirement and the brass ring of a high paying pension. For this reason turnover is low and I suspect the turnover rate falls the longer a person is employed. Most of the turnover is due to retirement, rather than someone leaving the agency or jumping out for another career. If an employee wants a promotion, most of the time he/she has to wait for someone above them to retire. That could be a long wait.
I see this firsthand in our school district. Two or three principals or department heads leave the system each year. Turnover at the higher levels of the district is low.
Other things have limited the opportunities for internal advancement as well. During the Dr. Lee D’Andrea administration, when management positions opened, often D’Andrea hired from outside the county. Thus, there were even less opportunities for advancement for those inside the Pickens County school district.
The TERI system and how the district regularly hired post-TERI employees further reduced the turnover at higher levels of the district, and hence opportunities for advancement. Before 2008 the school district allowed post-TERI employees to continue to work. It was not unheard of for a principal to go into the TERI program, then after 5 years, not retire, but continue on in the position for years and years even though they were considered “retired” under the state retirement system.
How The TERI Program Works:
When a person signs onto the TERI program, they promise to retire from the school district in 5 years. In return for that promise, the final 5 years of their employment they are paid their salary, plus they are given their retirement pay as well. That is, they start to collect their retirement pay 5 years before they actually stop working.
Retirement pay is typically 50% of their salary. Let’s say employee XYZ is paid a $60,000 salary to do her job. When he signs on to the TERI program, each of the last 5 years he is paid $60,000, plus $30,000 each year too.
After the 5 years, most honor the agreement, and leave the district. In our example, that employee would have gotten all her salary for those 5 years, plus $150,000 of upfront retirement pay (5 years times $30,000).
The Post-TERI Issue:
This becomes an issue when some employees want to continue to work after the 5 year TERI period ends. That is, they want to keep the upfront retirement money they received for agreeing to retire, but they want to keep working while they are considered retired and drawing a monthly retirement check.
Some of those employees petition the district to hire them back as a full-time, part-time or per diem. (Rosie Jordan was making that case above.) Some of them the district hires back. These “post-TERI” employees are officially retired and draw their pension, but work and get paid a salary too.
At the end of the D’Andrea administration 120 “retired” or post-TERI employees were working in full-time positions.
From the stand-point of the principle of the matter, if an employee signs the TERI agreement that gives him/her retirement money upfront in return for a pledge to retire from the district then that employee should do what he/she agreed to — retire. If the employee can not stick to the agreement they were handsomely compensated to keep, then they should not have signed the agreement and taken the money. Nor should the district be an accomplice in helping circumvent the agreement, by hiring them back.
This was unfair to regular employees for two reasons. Regular employees receive their salary only. The post-TERI worker received a monthly retirement check and the going rate of pay too. Additionally, the district eliminated many positions and was putting some employees out on the street. These post-TERI or “retired” employees were holding positions those laid-off workers might have filled. This also limited the advancement opportunities of those employees in the system as well.
Like medical costs, retirement costs are eating up the state budget. The TERI program encourages employees to start drawing benefits at a younger age, and this puts more stress on local school budgets and an under-funded state pension system. As part of the retirement reform, the TERI program will not be offered for new hires starting in 2012-13.
Legislation has also been introduced (S901) to eliminate all post-TERI hiring. Many in the legislature are frowning on how many “retired” employees are coming back to work in the state system, so they can draw a salary and retirement.
The District Needed A Written Policy:
In 2008-09 the district was facing massive position eliminations. Like I wrote above, there were 120 retirees/ post-TERI employees working in the district. Instead of pushing out first year employees, Dr. Stewart recommended to end of post-TERI employment so the 120 retirees on the payroll were not rehired back the next year, saving many first year employees’ jobs. I believe six principals were post-TERI at the time, so six principal ships opened up. Talented managers like Andrew Hooker (Dacusville Middle) were given an opportunity to become principal. Danny Merck came back and was hired as the principal at Easley High too.
That new rule allowed a post-TERI employee to be hired back only when a suitable replacement could not be found. Three post-TERI employees were given a wavier by the board because of their unique skill set. Today, one of the three is still in the system, but he will leave in December 2012.
It wasn’t a written policy, just something Stewart asked and the board members agreed to without a vote. I viewed the rule as applying to all employees in all circumstances.
Over the next 18 months, I heard from employees in the system more than the three post-TERI employees were working in the system. After asking numerous times, I was finally told 81 post-TERI and retired employees had been hired as part-time, as consultants or as substitutes.
This lack of a written policy also resulted in inconsistency in which post-TERI employees were hired back and which were not. The district was sued in one such case, had to settle the lawsuit.
For these reasons I pushed for a written policy. One was written and passed in the spring of 2011. The policy eliminated the hiring of all retirees unless a suitable replacement could not be found, and the board must approve those waivers. If a person is given a wavier, it is temporary and their pay is reduced, which the state law allows. Exemptions to the policy were given for substitute teachers, substitute food service, substitute bus drivers and substitute custodians, as well as those who are hired for professional development.
There was more good than bad in the policy, so I voted it. I liked the heart of the policy, but there were too many exemptions in my opinion.
The district says those substitutes are hard to find, but I argued it could be done if recruiting was turned up a notch. My point was it wasn’t like anyone was asking the personnel department to go to the Career Center, build a rocket ship and blast it off to Mars. All I was asking was the district turn it up a notch on something it does every day — recruit new talent. There are a lot of good people out of work, so I didn’t think filling those substitute positions with qualified people would be impossible. I lost that argument, so the exemptions were put in.
The number of requests I get from citizens is how can my son, daughter, relative or friend get a job in the school system? When you look at the generous work schedule, benefits and pay, taxpayers are giving employees many benefits that they don’t get themselves.