Hamilton County school board approves early retirement incentives

Board member Steve Highlander, left, listens as board member Karista Jones talks about a state partnership zone for low performing schools during a meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Hamilton County school board has approved an early retirement incentive for longtime teachers and administrators.

With 150 people projected to take advantage of early retirement, the incentive package is estimated to have a one-time cost of $6.5 million. If more than 150 people were to take the package, that cost will be covered by an extra $1.9 million sent to several school districts by the state following a revised Basic Education Program memo in January.

The savings generated by the retirement incentive are estimated to be about $20,000 per person.

There are three tiers to the one-time incentive package. The first tier gives employees 25 percent of their annual salary if they've worked 25 years or more. The second tier is for employees who have worked 20-24 years, and they would receive 20 percent of their annual salary. The last tier is for employees who have worked 10 or more years and are at least 65 years old. Those employees would get 15 percent of their annual salary.

During Thursday's meeting, the school board voted 7-1 to approve the plan. Board chairman Steve Highlander recused himself because of a family member who works as a teacher and would be affected by the incentive.

photo Board members Rhonda Thurman, left, and David Testerman whisper to one another during discussion of a state partnership zone for low performing schools during a meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo In this Set. 28, 2017, staff file photo, Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson sits in his office inside the Hamilton County Department of Education building on Hickory Valley Road in Chattanooga.

In the weeks leading up to Thursday's meeting, Superintendent Bryan Johnson met individually with some school board members to lay out his plan to offer substantial incentive packages to eligible retirees.

The deadline for eligible employees to notify the district of their intention to retire has usually been Feb. 1, but the deadline was extended to March 15 this year for people to have time to decide if they'd like to take the incentive.

While many school board members said they thought the incentive package had a lot of positive aspects, they also had some concerns.

Highlander said he was concerned the incentive would drain the district of highly qualified and experienced teachers, especially for subjects such as physics and higher math.

"I'm not saying that I am against it - there seems to be a lot of positive things about it - but I am concerned that we may lose some of our strongest people," he said.

School board member David Testerman had the same concerns, as well as others about communication and transparency.

"I just want folks to know that I did not have details of this thing until 3 o'clock [Wednesday]," He said. "I know a lot of folks are excited about it. I just hope it doesn't put us in a situation where we're going to have to find teachers, and where are we going to find them all?"

Testerman was also bothered that teachers and administrators were not consulted when discussions first started taking place.

"We can't ignore whom we serve," he said. "This thing has to do with teachers more than everybody, and I think we should include them at the very onset of this."

School board member Rhonda Thurman, who was the only no vote, said she did not support the incentive.

"$1.9 million from the state. We're going to be spending that out on some of these incentives when we could be taking the whole $1.9, almost $2 million, for our wish list we have here," she said.

Other board members commended Johnson for "the way he has worked to stay within the Sunshine Law."

"He has tried to meet with each of us individually, which he can do legally and ethically," Highlander said. "And it's really hard to schedule nine people, if you know our schedules."

Before the vote, Johnson clarified that "it's not about trying to get rid of old teachers."

"This is a finite moment in time where we have an opportunity to implement strategy because of some additional revenue that can create a recurring revenue of $6.5 million that will allow us to address things like safety, increased technology, STEM programming, counselors, social workers, ESOL teachers," he said. "All of these areas that you as a board and our community have shared that are critically important."

Another key topic that was voted on was a resolution to oppose the state's A-F school grading system. The resolution urges the state to overturn the system, which was introduced last year in an effort to increase accountability and compliance with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

School board member Karitsa Jones said she thinks the A-F system further stigmatizes students who attend schools that have been deemed as the lowest-performing one in the district as failures.

"I don't care about the state's feelings, they don't care about the fact that they don't fully fund the BEP," she said. "And what about our kids? That's why they're underperforming. Because they don't have everything they need and we can't suffice for it."

The board also voted to approve a memorandum of understanding between the school district and the state department of education, which creates a Partnership Network that will support the district's lowest-performing schools.

"This vote is a win for Hamilton County's students," Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. "This partnership will take an innovative and collaborative approach to supporting the district's schools that have historically struggled to ensure student success by blending state accountability and resources with local leadership and expertise. We're optimistic about what we will achieve through the Partnership Network. Now, we are acting quickly to determine goals and establish an advisory committee that will guide this work moving forward."

Additionally, under it's consent agenda, the board voted to appropriate an unassigned fund balance of $850,000 to negotiate the purchase of roughly 30.4 acres of property next to Sale Creek Middle High School on Roark Road.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.