TEACHERS CLAIM BAIT AND SWITCH - The Explorer: Import

TEACHERS CLAIM BAIT AND SWITCH

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Posted: Saturday, December 22, 2001 12:00 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

After Amphitheater school district officials and employees thought they had come to an agreement over the early retirement plan, some employees are now saying the district is not living up to its promises.

John Lewandowski, the Amphitheater Education Association president, addressed the board at the meeting, saying the plan presented to employees to be ratified was not the same plan association members approved in negotiations with district officials.

The early retirement phase out program will provide benefits to three groups of employees hired before Dec. 12 based on their number of years with the district. Health care benefits are only given to employees who have worked for the district for more than seven years.

"The information we were given was incorrect," Lewandowski said to the board before the proposed plan was approved with a 4-1 vote, with Mary Schuh voting no.

Lewandowski said district negotiators did take into account employees' concerns about health insurance coverage, but that employees were told one thing during negotiations, but saw another on paper once the proposed plan was drafted.

This latest debate over health benefits is a culmination of two months of squabbling, both in and out of the board room, after the district proposed to eliminate the plan altogether at it's Oct. 23 meeting. Several teachers vehemently addressed the board and several also picketed before the subsequent board meetings and at high school sporting events.

The board warily gave the O.K. for the district and employees to go into formal negotiations over the plan at its Nov. 15 meeting, fearing that the process, which can take months to complete, would not achieve a result by the Dec. 11 meeting.

Lewandowski said during negotiations, district negotiators led employees to believe that all of their health insurance benefits would be paid for upon retirement. In order to receive health benefits, though, employees must go through the Arizona State Retirement System, something Lewandowski said was not discussed during negotiations.

The least expensive benefit package, for one person under the age of 65, costs about $4,800, according to an ASRS benefit advisor.

The state will then contribute $1,800 toward care and the district will contribute $900 according to the plan, leaving about $2,100 for the retirees to pay for.

"If (these health benefits) were discussed, we never would have approved it," Lewandowski said, adding that it would be less expensive for the district for employees to be covered by Amphi's current health insurance plan.

But Todd Jaeger, Amphi's legal counsel, said he can't understand why there would be any confusion over the plan since district and employee negotiators worked very closely in writing the new plan.

"In the last two days (of negotiation), we did nothing but sit around the computer and write the language of the plan word by word," Jaeger said. "I don't know how there could be any confusion."

Jaeger said there was a draft of the plan early on that provided early retirees with district benefits, but said the cost of providing health insurance to early retirees would be a significant expense for the district.

"Eighty percent of health care costs are incurred by the older generation," Jaeger said. "If we kept all of the retirees on the district health insurance plan, it would be raising the consequential costs for everyone else."

Board President Ken Smith said he was initially pleased that a conclusion was reached so quickly, but became frustrated after Lewandowski addressed the board.

"I came here prepared to say how pleased I was that this process could work so quickly, but I can't say that anymore," Smith said while Lewandowski was addressing the board.

Under the old plan, Jaeger said the district will be losing almost $4 million a year. That money comes out of the district's maintenance and operations budget which houses the same funds used for student programs, employee salaries and school supplies, among other things. That $4 million also includes fringe benefits such as health care. Jaeger said he does not know how long it will take for the district to stop losing money, even under the phase out plan, but said the situation has been "contained."

"I would like everyone to realize the breakdown of how much everything costs," Jaeger said. "And I believe (the AEA) wants members to know how much this costs."

Another major change in the plan is the cash benefits employees will receive. The amount was reduced to their final salary times 1.5, as opposed to 1.7.

The distribution of those funds has also changed. Instead of receiving 75 percent of the funds in the first three years and the rest in the remaining seven, or when the retiree turns 65, whichever comes first, retirees will be receiving an equal amount over the same time span. They will also begin to receive the money during their last five years of retirement, which means better benefits from the state since that money would be calculated into their final salary, as long as the employee was employed before 1984.

Under the old plan, retirees weren't receiving the cash benefit until after they retired. Jaeger said with the new distribution method, both parties win.

"We want teachers to stay longer with the district," he said. "This way, it would require them to stay longer, but it's incentive for both parties."

The service agreement under the plan has also changed, with only 15 required days of service instead of 20 that must be fulfilled in a substitute capacity after retirement. Jaeger said since employees would be staying longer with the district, it would be fair to reduce the number of service days.

"It was a give and take situation," Jaeger said. "I just cannot understand why people are upset."

Schuh said the plan should have been eliminated from the start so the district could start saving money "I don't know if people realize how much money walks out the door," Schuh said. "That money should be going into classrooms."

Schuh also said taxpayers are being misled when it comes to where their money goes.

"When people are paying taxes, they're assuming it's going into the classroom," she said. "We're not getting money to students."

Schuh also said lagging Proposition 301 funds have also put the district in a tight spot since maintenance and operations funds have already been used for expenses with the intention of using 301 money to fill the hole.

Schuh said the district should have considered giving teachers a salary increase rather than continue any sort of early retirement plan.

"I didn't have as much a problem with that concept," she said.

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