By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service
LANSING – Some St. Joseph County school districts, including those in Sturgis and Constantine, are thinning their budgets by reducing staffs through voluntary termination programs that provide financial incentives to those who retire early.
Julie Evans, assistant superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools, said her district is offering the program to teachers and administrators with at least 25 years in the retirement system. They receive a bonus if they leave the district at the end of this school year.
“Our goal is to reduce staff, to reduce teaching positions and other staff positions,” Evans said. “This voluntary termination plan may help that process, because we want to be able to save jobs at the very same time that we’re reducing positions.”
Meanwhile, the Legislature and Granholm administration are debating proposals to encourage thousands of public school and state employees to retire early. The intent is to help schools and the state save millions of dollars. A Senate-passed proposal is awaiting House action.
Evans said the Sturgis district has set a six-week deadline for teachers to decide whether to accept the plan. She said the number of teachers who have accepted the offer isn’t final and that the district may have to hire some replacements for the fall.
In Constantine, a similar plan is available.
Constantine Public Schools business manager Lisa Pointer-Seidner said her district is offering it to teachers who are at least 55 and have a set amount of service. It includes a bonus paid over two years.
Evans was unwilling to disclose the terms of the plan or how many teachers have agreed to it thus far.
Kerry Birmingham, public information officer for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said voluntary termination programs – sometimes known as retirement incentives – are increasingly popular. The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other public school employees.
“We are seeing more and more of it,” she said. “It’s been a trend on and off for several years as school districts try to balance their budget and also maintain staff.”
Birmingham said voluntary termination programs can benefit districts.
“It can be very effective in helping to reduce budget considerations,” she said. “When it’s an actual retirement incentive, you give people a choice. In many cases, there is a financial bonus for the teacher to retire early.
“And there’s financial incentive for the school district as well because they’re more likely to bring in a younger teacher, or in some cases not replace them,” Birmingham said. “But it’s a local decision as to what works.”
Unlike other budget-cutting measures like four-day school weeks, voluntary termination doesn’t present great concern for student learning, Birmingham said.
“It doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact because the teachers that are coming in are trained teachers,” she said.
However, one concern is that faculty members will be inexperienced, Birmingham said.
“We still need to make sure that we have mentor teachers for the younger teachers coming in,” she said. “We don’t want, in any school district, a staff of all brand-new teachers.”
Birmingham said most voluntary termination plans and retirement incentives offer teachers a percentage increase in retirement benefits or bonuses.
Pointer-Seidner said the Constantine district’s offer was set to expire May 1 but will be extended as the school waits for state aid numbers from Lansing.
“Because the state of Michigan is always really, really slow at deciding what they’re going to do for school districts, we’re taking it to the board for an extension,” she said.
“We’re trying to give the teachers the opportunity where if it doesn’t work out for them, they don’t have to do it. If something changes, then they still can.”
Nine teachers have already accepted voluntary termination among the 20 and 30 who are eligible, according to Pointer-Seidner.
“Since they’re at the top of the salary schedule, we’ll hopefully not have to lay anyone off,” she said.
Although it’s sometimes called a retirement incentive, participants don’t necessarily retire from the classroom.
“We could have a teacher resign from Constantine and, if they wanted to continue working elsewhere, go to another school district and be hired,” Pointer-Seidner said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.