Education matters: Money for nothing

By a vote of 4-1, San Dieguito Union High School District trustees in December approved offering stipends to any employee –teacher or not – who gave notice before Feb. 1 of their intent to retire by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The rationale, according SDUHSD superintendent Eric Dill, was not to provide an early retirement notice for the purpose of reducing the number of highly-paid veteran employees and replacing them with new, and less costly, workers – although the reduction in payroll costs was a secondary benefit. 

Rather, he said, the primary purpose was to give the district more time to recruit and hire teachers with credentials in hard-to-fill fields. The most difficult areas to recruit teachers, he said, are special education, mathematics and science.

In his report to the board, Dill wrote, “The shortage of highly qualified teachers in California is well-documented.” 

The decision was also driven by the fact that more SDUHSD teachers this year had reached retirement age than in previous years. He said the number this year was about 40, compared to previous years when there were 10 or 12.

“Right now we’ve got a huge bubble [of teachers] that are retirement age,” Dill said. “We know we’re going to get a bunch of teachers retiring this year.”

He said the retirement age for teachers is typically 58 to 60. By 60 or 61, many employees seriously consider retiring. 

Dill said he wanted to know early, for planning purposes, the number of those leaving and what credentials they hold, so the district can begin recruiting in those subject areas.

“We want to get out in advance of other districts,” he said. 

Shortages, he said, are higher for high school districts, which require special single-subject credentials for all course content areas.

“The earlier we can determine the number of teachers who intend to retire and the credentials held by those teachers, the earlier we can begin our efforts to recruit highly qualified teachers to fill those vacancies,” Dill said.

The incentive if notice was given in Jan. was 5 percent of their annual salary, and 2 percent for notices given Feb. 1 to Feb. 15.

He said the stipends would cost the district roughly between $3,000 and $6,000 per employee and “would be paid for out of the substantial salary and benefit savings recognized through attrition,” Dill wrote in his report.

“We’ve had little success when we’ve just nudged them,” he said in an interview. “This is an intent to get people to commit early.”

He added that it was important to know who was not leaving as well, for more accurate budget projections. 

“If we have another year of very few retirements, I need to know that too,” he said.

“The longer we wait to replace retiring teachers, the more difficult it will be to find replacements, in addition to the teachers we need to hire to accommodate enrollment growth,” the board report reads.

Dill said the stipend was not intended to encourage anyone to retire.

“This is not meant to incentivize anyone to leave,” he said. “This is to incentivize anyone who already is thinking of leaving to let us know so we can start planning.”

If the district receives retirement notices later in the year, the district has to scramble, he said, to find qualified replacements, noting that the district wants to avoid repeating last fall’s school openings when substitutes were hired for classes that had no qualified teachers. 

Not just teachers

It’s not just certificated teachers who were offered the stipend. It was offered to all certificated non-teachers as well as classified employees.

“Staff recommends that this stipend apply to classified employees as well,” Dill wrote in his board report.

When asked why classified, Dill said the same benefits have always been offered to classified employees when benefits are offered to certificated. 

Vacancies in classified personnel – secretaries, bus drivers, instructional aides and others – are “an efficiency problem,” he said, noting that it can take up to three months to recruit for a vacancy. 

Trustee John Salazar, who voted against the offer, wrote in a letter to Dill before the Dec. 8 board meeting, “I think it is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money to pay someone to let you know if they plan on retiring.”

Trustee Mo Muir questioned why it seemed the district was encouraging qualified teachers to leave. “I don’t want to lose any good teachers,” she said.

Muir disagreed with the offer but voted for it because, she told me, the district needs the money to help lower the deficit, which is estimated to be $9.7 million this year.

Trying to strike a balance, Torrey Pines High School student board representative Isaac Gelman asked if the incentive offer could apply only to those teachers in hard-to-fill positions. Although board members agreed it was a good question, Dill said the labor contract did not permit offering a benefit to only select teachers. 

Giving notice before Feb. 1 were 18 certificated and 18 classified employees – all qualifying for the 5 percent stipend.

For certificated staff, Dill estimated the stipends would cost the district about $127,000, and the net savings after hiring replacements would be about $1.3 million.

For classified, he estimated the stipends would cost the district about $51,200, and the net savings after hiring replacements would be about $283,700.

The total cost for the stipends for all those who gave notice is about $180,000.

If the district decides not to hire replacements for some positions, the savings would be higher, Dill said.

On Feb. 14, Dill said there have been no employees taking advantage of the 2 percent stipend for notices given between Feb. 1 and Feb. 15. 

He did say that a few people will give notice before the end of the fiscal year, but they will receive no stipend.

“The net savings will be larger, but the positions will be more challenging to fill before school starts,” he said. 

Who’s leaving

A revised list of resignations was handed out at the Feb. 2 school board meeting, updating the list posted in the agenda before the meeting. 

The revised list is still not available on-line, even after I asked multiple times. Because the agenda on the district’s website has not been updated as of press time, the public can only review the full list by contacting the superintendent’s office directly.

Eighteen certificated employee resignations were accepted: 14 teachers and four non-teachers.

Ten of those 14 teacher resignations are for teachers of art, English, physical education and other subjects not considered difficult to fill. 

One of those 10 is Bob Croft, who is listed as teaching P.E. and English at Earl Warren Middle School. But according to the district, he has not taught in the classroom since 2010. 

Croft is paid a full salary – $125,797 – and serves as president of the San Dieguito Faculty Association, the district’s teachers union. The district pays a substitute to teach his classes. 

Besides continuing to receive his full salary through the end of the fiscal year, Croft will receive over $6,000 as a stipend for announcing his resignation in January.

Of the hard-to-fill positions, four of the 14 were teachers of science and math, and none were special education.

The four science/math teachers are: Susan Atkinson, math teacher at La Costa Canyon High School; Isla Cordelae, science teacher at Torrey Pines; David Fleischman, physics teacher at Torrey Pines; and Celia Walsh, science teacher at Oak Crest Middle School.

Other teacher resignations by school include:

*Canyon Crest Academy: Lisa Caston, Carol Limbach

*La Costa Canyon: Deborah Elliott, Joseph McCormick, Jamie Ritchie, Daniel Salas

*Torrey Pines: Daniel Aposhian

*Carmel Valley Middle School: Kim Bullock, Sally Hackworth

The four certificated non-teacher employees are:

*Adrienne St. George Cavanaugh, district library media coordinator

*Jeanne Jones, assistant principal at San Dieguito Academy

*Elizabeth Levario, counselor at La Costa Canyon

*Torrie Norton, associate superintendent of human resources

The 18 resignations from classified employees include bus drivers, secretaries, instructional aides, grounds workers, administrative assistants, nutrition services workers, the director of student information services (Patricia Gaul) and the chief facilities officer (Russell Thornton).

What’s the problem?

What’s wrong with this plan is that, despite Dill’s assertion that the stipend is not an incentive to retire, that’s exactly what it amounts to. There are ways to attract highly qualified teachers to the district besides giving away district money. Signing bonuses for hard-to-fill positions are commonly used, for example.

And offering stipends to classified employees because the district has always offered to one group the same for all groups makes no sense. 

“It’s the way we’ve always done it” is the common district excuse for so many costly traditions that can no longer be justified. 

If one accepts what Dill wrote in his board report, that it is “a highly competitive market for certificated staff,” then what is the point of incentivizing secretaries and bus drivers to retire?

Furthermore, if the intent is to get a head start on the hiring of science, math and special education teachers, only four gave notice. The rest are positions that are less hard to fill. 

And one more point. Torrie Norton, the district’s associate supt. of human resources, is taking advantage of the policy she and Dill formulated together, by herself announcing her resignation. 

Norton is paid $195,466 annually, as of July 1, 2016. That, by the way, is up from $162,265 in June 2015. She and the three other associate superintendents are paid exactly the same – which means that a replacement for Norton will be offered her same salary. Not much savings there. Norton’s stipend will be close to $10,000.

Salazar was nearly apoplectic over what he called a “money giveaway,” suggesting that most of these people would have retired anyway, without a bonus.

He is doubtful that it will be difficult to fill the vacant teaching positions, considering that the teachers’ contract includes the outrageous statement that San Dieguito teachers must be the highest paid in the county.

Lest we be distracted by the claim to justify the stipends that the district will realize tremendous savings when these veteran employees are replaced by less costly workers, keep in mind that those savings would have been realized anyway, without the stipends.

But it’s done. And the news, after offering money to know how many science, math and special education teachers will be leaving, is merely four. 

To learn this, it will cost the district about $180,000 in stipends. 

Just wondering how many musical instruments and how much science equipment $180,000 could buy.

Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com

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