By Marsha Sutton
Senior Education Writer
Seventeen employees of the Del Mar Union School District took advantage of the Supplemental Employee Retirement Plan this year, which offers 75 percent of their salary to anyone over age 55 who has worked at least two years in the district, said DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody.
Employees who applied for SERP this year had to resign by June 30, 2011 and are not eligible to be rehired by the district in a salaried position.
Susan Fitzpatrick, principal of Del Mar Hills Academy, was one employee who took advantage of SERP and will be leaving the district June 30. Instead of retiring though, she will be assuming a position in another district, which is allowed under the conditions of SERP, as long as she no longer works in the DMUSD, Peabody said.
“She is eligible to work and still collect the supplement from us, but not her pension,” Peabody said.
Had Fitzpatrick chosen to retire, she would also have been eligible to receive pension money from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, known as CalSTRS, and SERP would have been in addition to those benefits.
“If she took her STRS payments, it [SERP] is on top of that,” Peabody said. “But if she takes her STRS payments, she can’t work in California.”
Fitzpatrick said she originally intended to retire, but a job offer came after she applied for SERP that she chose to accept. She said she could not take advantage of CalSTRS if she continued to work, but could still take SERP after leaving Del Mar. “If I didn’t work, then I could have both,” she said.
In a May 2 letter to Del Mar Hills parents, Fitzpatrick, who was hired by the district in December 2008, said that the DMUSD Board of Trustees approved “a generous School Employees Retirement Plan (SERP) to all district employees.” This early retirement incentive, she wrote, affords districts “the opportunity to reward long-term, higher-salaried employees a reward while opening up positions to less experienced, qualified applicants.”
In her letter, she said she “elected to take advantage of this opportunity” after reviewing the benefits of SERP. She thanked the parents for “including me in your lives” and called her time at the Hills “the ‘cherry on top’ of my career.”
In an interview, Fitzpatrick said, “I was going to take the retirement because it’s a really good package and it’s similar to what other districts have offered. I was going to do that and retire. But a superintendent I had worked for previously contacted me, and it was a golden opportunity. So I said okay, I’ll put off the retirement for a little bit longer.”
Fitzpatrick accepted an offer to be the assistant superintendent of business services for the El Centro School District in Imperial County, beginning July 1, at an annual salary of $114,000.
Her salary in Del Mar is $120,519, which is the highest pay (Step 5) on the district’s certificated administrators (principals) salary schedule. SERP pays 75 percent of this salary, so she will be receiving about $90,000 which she chose to accept in monthly payments of about $1,500 for five years. Employees can receive the full 75 percent of their salary through SERP regardless of whether they worked at the district for two years or many decades.
Peabody said the district offered the supplemental retirement plan as a cost-savings incentive. “The bottom line for the district is that we’ll save about $320,000 over five years because of the amount of people we had retire,” he said.
SERPs are commonly offered by school districts to urge veteran, higher-paid employees to retire. Those employees can then be replaced with younger workers who come in at a lower pay scale.
Another principal will replace Fitzpatrick, Peabody said, at a salary from $100,709 (Step 1 on DMUSD’s principal salary schedule) to $120,519 (Step 5).
“We will replace with a principal, and that would be the shortest break we would get,” he said. “In other words, the difference between a principal coming and a principal leaving isn’t going to be too great.”
He said there will be a small savings with that position, “but not much.” The bulk of the savings to the district comes from the other employees who resigned, he said.
Of the 17 employees who opted for one of several payment plans under SERP, two will be paid their SERP money from the district’s general fund. The money for the other 15 will come from the Federal Education Jobs Fund, the purpose of which is to save school site employees’ jobs, Peabody said.
“Every district in the country got the funding last year,” he said in an email. “We used it to offset health benefits and to do the SERP.” DMUSD’s allotment was $763,852, he said.
The two employees who will be paid their supplemental retirement money from the district’s general fund work at the district office rather than a school site and so do not qualify for the Federal Education Jobs Fund.
“The [federal] funds must be spent on school employees,” Peabody said, adding that the “general fund money is recouped by employee savings.”
The plan was offered to everyone, not just school site staff, he said, because the school board “wanted to be fair to all employees.”