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New Hamilton County schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a meeting with the Times Free Press editorial board at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson intends to propose a plan to push longtime educators toward retirement when the school board meets today.

Over the course of several weeks of meetings between individual board members and Johnson and his newly appointed chief officers, Johnson has laid out a plan to offer substantial incentive packages to eligible retirees. The packages could reportedly be based on a percentage of the employee's annual salary — up to 25 percent — or on different tiers based on the number of years served in the district.

Johnson confirmed Wednesday that the item is on the agenda. Asked about the amounts of the incentives, the number of eligible retirees and where the money would come from, he said only that the district's finance department had looked at the plan and it would be presented to the board.

Several board members support Johnson's proposal.

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"I think it is a good idea," said board member Joe Smith, of District 3. "It gives educators a choice. I think sometimes we forget that, after all, we are a business, we are a $460 million business and if it makes sense for a business, then it's a good idea."

District 4 board member Tiffanie Robinson agreed.

"Many new CEOs or superintendents come up with ways to sort of weed out some of the older, more expensive and possibly less effective employees who don't align with their vision," she said.

Historically, eligible retirees have had until Feb. 1 to notify the district of their intention to retire, but that deadline was extended to March 15 this year.

Last year, prominent Chattanooga business leaders, members of the county school budget working group, advised the district to reduce the number of schools and teachers and to increase teacher and principal salaries with savings from these consolidations to better align compensation with quality, among other recommendations.

The ability to encourage eligible employees toward retirement could help address those recommendations, as well as be a cash windfall for the district.

Robinson emphasized that one of her concerns with Johnson's idea was that the school system would suddenly face a shortage of quality educators.

The possibility of a large percentage of educators taking the bonuses is also a concern for board members.

As of December 2017, 649 district employees — not including interventionists and administrators, such as principals and assistant principals — were eligible for early or full retirement.

The district anticipates about 250 retirees this school year.

"I was concerned about a loss of quality educators," Robinson said. "The superintendent and his team were confident in their anticipated numbers and If there is a loss-of-quality concern, hopefully the superintendent could convince them to stay."

Smith echoed Robinson's hesitation.

"We've got to make sure we are being wise with this," he said. "One of my questions is, what if you were seeing multitudes of them taking early retirement because of this."

Purging the district of more expensive employees also could free up funds in the district budget. Johnson has made substantial changes to Central Office staff as well as appointed more than $1 million worth of staff positions to the Opportunity Zone leadership team this year.

"When he made those moves and moved people into new positions, there were initial concerns with what those costs would be," Smith said. "A lot of us were worried, 'What is this going to do to our budget?' Johnson is very aware of this concern and knows we'll need to find creative ways to fund these positions."

Board member Joe Galloway, of District 6, said the board would vote today on extending the deadline for retirements — though other board members confirmed that deadline already had been extended.

As for the retirement incentives, Galloway was also in favor of the possibility.

"It looks like it's going to save us some money," he said.

District 1 representative Rhonda Thurman disagrees.

'I'm not happy about it," she said. "We went though this 10-12 years ago We may be saving money, but we are going to be losing some very key, crucial people, and it's going to have a negative impact on the students in the classrooms."

Thurman said she does not plan on voting in favor of the proposal.

"I just think it's not a wise thing to do," she said. "They're scrounging around for money because I think they've blown the budget and will be going to the County Commission this year asking for more."

Neither Johnson nor his team have officially revealed the retirement package yet, and the expense is not in the budget, though a presentation by Johnson on behalf of the county working group is on the agenda for today's meeting.

Most of the discussions around the plan have happened in one-on-one meetings, several board members confirmed. The meetings, held over the past several weeks among Johnson, his leadership team and individual board members were not public or bound by open meetings requirements.

Board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, said she felt energized by the meetings, but did not feel overly informed about Johnson's plan.

"I think it will be a good thing for our budget if it happens," Lennon said. She noted that district officials told her there was precedent for similar retirement packages — the district offered one about 10 years ago, Lennon said. Johnson also said the package would align similarly to ones offered in the past.

Board chairman Steve Highlander noted that employee salaries and benefits are the biggest cost for the district.

"It takes money for a system to improve, and the largest single cost for the district is personnel," he said. Highlander noted the advantage to a large number of employees taking retirement bonuses would be that they came off the district's benefit plan.

Highlander would not say whether he was in favor of the proposal before its official presentation to the board tonight.

The board will meet today at 5:30 p.m. for its regular monthly board meeting. It will meet at 4 p.m for a work session to include discussions on the 2018-19 budget, as well as the academic calendar.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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