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Bemidji School District denies 12 teachers early retirement incentive

Mary Kobilka stood in front of the Bemidji School District's Board of Education Monday asking the board members to vote "yes" to allowing teachers who are close to retirement age to retire.

The board, however, did not do as the Bemidji Middle School teacher had hoped.

During its regular business meeting Monday evening, the school board unanimously voted to deny 12 teachers their requests for early retirement incentive payments.

On Jan. 31, the district received 12 letters applying for an early retirement package of $17,000. According to Jordan Hickman, the district's director of human resources, prior to receiving the requests, the district had not discussed early retirement incentives for teachers.

In order to receive an early retirement incentive, a teacher may apply to the school board to retire early or to receive early retirement incentive. The teacher must apply to the school board on or before Feb. 1 of the year in which he or she wishes to retire. The school board then has 30 days to approve or deny the application. The amount of the early retirement incentive must be agreed upon by the teacher and the school board.

"The hope is, simply, to help higher-end teachers to retire and replace them with beginning teachers," Kobilka said during the public input portion of the meeting. "It is not hard to see the savings between a teacher earning $62,000 a year and one who is earning $30,000."

In a memo written by Superintendent James Hess that was made available in the school board agenda, during the 2009-10 school year the district called for teacher layoffs due to budgetary shortfalls.

A Minnesota statute allows school districts the option to offset layoffs by offering early retirement incentives to certain employees, but the amount of the incentive must be equal to or less than the cost of the layoff.

According to Hess' report, it was determined that offering a one-time incentive of $10,000, deposited into the teachers' health care savings plan, would have allowed some eligible teachers to retire by July 15, 2009, and would reduce the number of layoffs that would be necessary.

Currently, Hickman said, that state statute expired on July 15, 2009, and the district does not expect to lay off teachers for the 2011-12 school year.

"There is no additional state funding available for teacher early retirement incentive payments," Hickman said. "There is no appropriate rationale for approving such ... payments."

In September the district was granted roughly $1.1 million from the federal government to fund staff positions for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years through the Education Jobs Fund. The fund is a one-time federal program that provides $10 billion in assistance to states, including $167 million to Minnesota, to save or create education jobs for the 2010-11 school year. The program was signed into law on Aug. 10, 2010.

According to Hess, using Education Job Fund dollars for early retirement incentives is allowed under state legislation, but he said the district has already used up almost half of its funds.

Spending the rest of the federal dollars on the 12 early retirement incentive payments, Hickman implied, would reduce the federal education jobs funding available to support other positions.

"This money was actually a real bonus for the district," Hess said. "This fall we were looking at huge class sizes, especially in the elementary grades. We used this money to split these classrooms so we could hire additional teachers. We've been using the money as it was intended."

In September, five elementary school classroom teachers were added to limit class sizes and .5 fulltime equivalent teaching staff was added at the Bemidji High School.

But BMS teacher Robert Hurd said he found evidence showing if the district paid for five and a half teachers and the early retirement incentive for 12 teachers, the district would only use approximately 50 percent of the $1.1 million it received through the Education Jobs Fund.

"I don't think they considered anything I said, and I didn't even get halfway through the material," Hurd said after the vote, referring to the comments he made during the public input portion of the meeting. "I think they were surprised at some of the information I dug up."

Both Kobilka and Hurd talked to the school board about their concerns of not being able to afford to retire without the incentive package.

"Last year our insurance increased over 25 percent," Kobilka said. "Because of the increase in insurance, it has made it almost cost-prohibitive to retire."

Kobilka said she calculated that if the district approved the early retirement incentive, the district would save $2,532,000 over 12 years.

"I'm a math teacher, so I look at the numbers," she said. "I can't imagine not being able to retire because of the high cost of insurance, especially when the cost would actually end up being a substantial savings for the district."

Paul Goodwin, president of the Bemidji Education Association, wrote a letter to the school board dated Feb. 8 asking board members to meet with the BEA representatives to come up with a solution. Goodwin was present at the school board meeting, but did not publicly speak to the board.

After the board denied the early incentive retirement request, Hurd said he felt bad about the vote.

"I did everything I could," Hurd said of communicating with the school board. "I didn't get one iota of feedback. I don't think I can retire."

School board member John Pugleasa said before the vote he would not consider giving the teachers early retirement because it would set a precedence the school board would have a difficult time arguing in the future.

"My concern in this environment is that we would enter into equity concerns with those that retire in the future," Pugleasa said. "I wish we could give each staff bonuses and be able to show our appreciation in a monetary way. Unfortunately, the tools we have in hand prevent us from doing that."