The Houston County Board of Education will decide at a Tuesday meeting whether to place jobs held by part-time retired employees on the chopping block in its efforts to address state budget cuts.
In Houston County, there are 29 part-time retired employees, also earning annual salaries from about $10,000 to almost $80,000, according to records obtained by The Telegraph. Many are teachers at elementary, middle and high schools all over the county. The majority of the staff members on the list, about 20, make about$30,000 a year.
Employing the part-time employees provides several benefits to the school system, said Stephen Thublin, assistant superintendent for finance and business operations. They often provide instruction in critical areas that otherwise may not be staffed, such as Advanced Placement or other courses, and save the system the costs of benefits.
The board discussed the issue at a called meeting April 28 to talk about the budget. The board voted on three motions related to the matter. With member Fred Wilson absent from the meeting, the seven-member school board was split down the middle in two of those motions.
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In one motion on whether to not renew all part-time retired employees for the upcoming year, board members Griff Clements, Marianne Melnick and Helen Hughes voted in favor, while Tom Walmer, Toby Hill and Skip Dawkins voted against it.
Finally, in a 5-1 vote, with board chairman Walmer dissenting, the board decided to revisit the issue at Tuesday’s meeting.
Superintendent David Carpenter said he will recommend a reduction of the staff to the board, though he did not say how many positions may be cut. A monetary savings estimate of those jobs would not yet be practical, he said, as their jobs could affect the availability of certain school programs.
The fate of the part-time retired employees may also decide whether the system will fill the position of assistant superintendent for school operations, currently held by incoming Superintendent Robin Hines, Carpenter said.
The matter was included in a different motion that also received a split vote from the board.
State decisions, local impact
State law allows for retired educators who are members of the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia to work in a Georgia school system for no more than 49 percent of the full-time job compensation to continue to receive retirement benefits.
This stipulation is the origin of the term “49 percenters,” used commonly among school officials to refer to the part-time retired employees.
Among the system’s part-time retired employees are several central office staffers, including Ed Dyson and James Kinchen, both executive directors of school operations, who earn $77,452.80 a year.
Retiring Northside High School athletics director Conrad Nix, who earns $58,529.49 a year, is also in this category. His replacement, Kevin Kinsler, is a full-time employee.
In 2002, state law was amended to also allow retired teachers to return as full-time employees after one year of retirement to address teacher shortages in Georgia.
There are nine full-time retired teachers in Houston County, though none are working in departments deemed as overstaffed, Carpenter said.
The move is one of a number of considerations the system will have to look at to account for up to $25 million in estimated budget shortfalls.
Carpenter feels the decision of which jobs to cut among the ranks of the part-time retired employees must be methodical. Just as for other employees in the system, certifications, multiple skill sets and other qualifications will be taken into account for the part-time retired employees, Carpenter said.
“When you go carte blanche and say you’re not going to have any 49 percenters, that’s not following the process in looking at personnel,” he said.
Reactions from the board
Walmer, the only board member who voted against the final decision to table the vote until Tuesday, said the issue should have been decided last month.
“In my frame of mind, this didn’t come up yesterday. It’s not a new situation. I’ve already considered it, both sides,” he said in an interview last week.
Walmer, who voted against the motion to not renew the contracts for all part-time retired employees, said he had to consider their contributions to the system as a whole.
“You have to weigh, if they’re retired, the wealth of experience and knowledge in education in them,” he said. “If you eliminate them, you eliminate valuable knowledge.”
Dawkins said he also voted against the motion to not renew the contracts for all part-time retired employees, saying the issue could have been handled differently than the way it was presented.
For now though, his final decision will depend on the terms Carpenter recommends for Tuesday’s vote.
“In my mind, I’m still chasing that chicken around,” Dawkins said.
Not knowing how much money Houston County will receive from the state also puts school officials in a difficult position, he said.
“We’re looking at a real serious situation. We’ve never had to operate under these circumstances,” said Dawkins, who first joined the school board about 15 years ago.
On the other hand, both Hughes and Melnick voted in favor of the motion to eliminate part-time retired employees so the money can be used toward the salaries of other staff members.
“Because we’re going through such hard financial times, we need to look at every option to keep full-time employees, as many as we can,” Melnick said.
While a tough choice to make, both felt the cuts would be easier on retired staff than younger teachers.
“Every one of us wishes we were not in position of having to cut positions, but we are. It’s a reality. As a board, we have to deal with it. I wish we didn’t,” Melnick said.
“I don’t want anyone to lose their job,” Hughes said.
“In the situation our budget is facing, we need to look at everything. Not everyone feels the same — we’re coming at it from different places.”
Ultimately, Hughes said she could not predict how the board will vote on the issue.
“It could totally go one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no crystal ball.”
Wilson, who was not present at the meeting but was listening in by phone, said he wants to have as much information as possible before making up his mind on the matter.
Either way, he feels it will not be an easy decision.
“Those people have been a great service to us. They always have,” Wilson said. “They’re educators with many years of experience. I don’t like the cuts that have been made already.”
Clements and Hill could not be reached for comment.
Carpenter believes that the board’s inability to reach consensus at the April 28 meeting indicates the complexity of the situation.
“It’s difficult to curtail people that make valuable contributions to the school system — it’s reflective in what’s causing the split,” he said. “You want to do the right thing, and it’s difficult. It’s not a position you want to be in.”
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.