School board opposes increasing staff retirement age
Members of the Medford School Board on Monday bucked their state association and went on record opposing a legislative plan to raise the minimum retirement age for state employees from 55 to 59.5.
SB612 has been touted as a way to address the teacher shortage in Wisconsin by keeping teachers in the classroom longer before being eligible to collect benefits from the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS).
While the Wisconsin Association of School Boards has gone on record in support of the bill, district administrator Pat Sullivan said “Every other organization related to education is against it.”
While raising the minimum retirement age by 4.5 years for state employees over the age of 40 is a major part of the legislation, another would allow teachers to return to the classroom more quickly post-retirement and for them to collect their retirement and regular paychecks for three years. “It will allow them to double dip for three years,” Sullivan said. He noted that he was personally against the measure and that he shared his concerns with local legislators.
“Most of the staff are pretty unhappy about it,” Sullivan said. “I don’t see that helping us recruit teachers.”
Board member Barb Knight noted that the age for Social Security for many people moved from 65 to 67 and some mandatory disbursements have moved from 70.5 to 72 to account for people living longer. She questioned why people wouldn’t support increasing the WRS minimum retirement age from 55.
Sullivan said that while there are not a lot of teachers who retire at 55, it is another thing to then tell people they don’t have a choice to retire then if they wanted to. He said that one of the reasons for increasing the age was to help bolster the WRS system by having people pay into it longer. However, he noted that WRS is one of the strongest retirement systems in the country. “This is the first time I have heard anyone worrying about the future of the WRS,” Sullivan said.
For Sullivan, the key was in how it impacted the ability to recruit teachers, noting that it does not help with his sales pitch to them.
Board member Brian Hallgren said the problem with recruiting teachers goes back to Act 10 passed in 2011 under Gov. Scott Walker and how teachers were treated by that. He said it has created an environment where people come up with “half-baked” plans to fix things. He said they need to go back and deal with Act 10.
While this is being proposed late in the legislative session, board members noted that even if it did not make it to a vote this session, it would likely resurface next session. With Dede Strama absent, board members voted unanimously to go on record opposing the bill.
An annual review of the fees the district charges students to take part in some classes and in co-curricular and athletic activities drew divisions among board members and staff.
Last school year, the district spent months reviewing the fee policies to establish a set of fees that is reviewed each winter. Sullivan noted that it was on the agenda for review and discussion but if there was going to be action on something, it would have to be put on next month’s agenda for that purpose.
Knight questioned the middle school band fees noting that she would like to see it made more clear for parents what the range of costs would be for renting instruments versus using one the district owns. The district charges $60 for the use of its instruments which covers cleaning and maintenance.
Board member Mark Temme opened a larger discussion on the fees by asking the building administrators and activities director how they feel about them.
“You want to open that can of worms Mark?” Sullivan asked.
Activities director Andy Guden said he doesn’t hear a lot of squabbling about the system that is in place where athletes pay $60 per season with a $240 maximum per family each year. He said they have a system in place for people with economic hardship to have the fees waived.
Elementary principal Dan Nelson said he opposed the fees. “I am a strong believer in not charging a dime,” he said, noting the district has a task of providing educational programs for students and that anytime there is a dollar amount tied to participating it is forcing people to decide to pay or not pay for it.
Middle school principal Al Leonard likewise said he was not a supporter of fees. “You have done a yeoman’s work of removing fees at the middle school level,” Leonard said, noting he was very appreciative of that. He said he feels that if the district offers things, the district should fund them.
He said where fees come in should be for the extras, such as the difference between using a coach bus versus a yellow school bus to go to an event.
Finance director Audra Brooks said she looked at it from a fiscal sense noting that anytime someone suggests cutting district revenues, it raises the question of where will that money come from within the budget to make up the shortfall. “What do you want us to not support?” she asked.
Board member Paul Dixon said fees generate about $35,000 a year for the district. He said the fees were imposed when the district was facing dire budget conditions and was being forced to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from the budget. Conditions have since improved and he questioned if the fees still are necessary. He cited the statistics for the fall sports with 247 participating students with about 21% of those participating filing economic hardship waivers. He questioned if there would have been more participation if there were no fees entirely.
Board member Cheryl Wibben disagreed. “I want all the kids to participate when they can. I want them all to participate competitively as well,” she said, noting that if more people came out for a sport it would require additional coaches and equipment costs for the district.
Board president Dave Fleegel said that he could see both sides of the issue. “I would say cut everything in half and see what happens,” Fleegel said.
No action was taken from the discussion with it up to board members to ask for it to be put on the March agenda if there is something they want changed.
Support staff requests
While the district does not negotiate with staff, there are monthly meetings between the portions of the staff and administration where the employees have a chance to come up with requests.
Sullivan reported the support staff made the following three requests: 1. Increase the amount the district pays insurance for nine-month employees. Currently nine-month employees are on an 80/20 split with the district paying 80% of insurance costs. For 12-month support staff the district pay 90% of the insurance premium and teachers/ administrators the district pays 89%. Based on current usage levels, this would increase the cost for the district by $78,000. Brooks noted that if five more employees joined the school plan it would jump it to $190,000 in additional cost.
2. Giving support staff employees a double step increase on their 10, 15, 20 and 25 year anniversaries as a longevity increase. Sullivan noted that if for example, the pay grid called for a 35 cent increase that year, it would be a 70 cent increase instead. Brooks estimated this would have a $5,000 to $6,000 budget impact. “It wouldn’t hit us too hard,” she said.
3. Giving newly hired 12-month employees some
See SCHOOL BOARD page 9 amount of vacation time in their first year of work. Currently they have to work a full year before receiving vacation. The suggestion was to do a tiered system with people getting a few days in the first half of the year and more in the second half. The requests were raised at the finance committee meeting held Friday afternoon. From that meeting Hallgren said they were nervous about the first request and what kind of financial impact it could have for the district in the long run. Hallgren said there was more support for the remaining two requests. Sullivan noted that with the second request, if it was approved it would be for those who reach those years and not be retroactive.
For the third request, Fleegel noted that it was a good way for the district to remain competitive for employees in the current job market where workers are receiving vacation at the beginning of their employment.
Board members approved granting the second and third requests while taking no action on increasing the percentage the district pays for insurance.
Lawyers may soon be getting involved in the ongoing issues between the district and the engineers who designed the pool renovation over the air handling equipment.
Sullivan reported that he has shared with the district’s attorney the email correspondence between himself and representatives from HSR who designed the pool system.
“We are frustrated with it,” Sullivan said, noting that he doesn’t feel the district should be responsible for paying for repairs to the system when it hasn’t worked from the beginning.
According to Dave Makovsky, the district’s director of buildings and grounds, the district has had problems with regulating the temperature and humidity levels in the pool area to keep them comfortable. He said they are slowly getting a handle on the issues, but have had to have technicians come down from Canada in order to deal with issues. He has concerns if the system was not designed properly in regard to having it adequately balanced. He estimates they have spent about $15,000 so far, but that there may be other costs to come.
In other business, board members:
_ Received an invitation from teacher Corey Nazer to board members and the entire community to take part in the Drive 1 For Your School event being hosted by Medford Motors at the Medford Area Chamber of Commerce Home and Business Expo on March 21. For everyone who test drives a vehicle Ford will donate $20 to the History Club and American Legion for the KIA Memorial. The money will be used to replace the red granite from around the flag field with cement to improve accessibility.
_ Accepted a finance committee plan to include having Chromebooks go home with middle school students in the seventh grade next year. This will not change the number of devices the school owns, but will increase insurance costs for the machines as well as require the purchase of additional Chromebook cases next year for both the seventh and eighth graders. Leonard said there would be instructional gains with teachers having both seventh and eighth grade classes, this would make it consistent between the grades. Currently, seventh graders keep their Chromebooks at school. At the finance meeting last week, Leonard said he did foresee going down to having sixth graders take home the devices, noting there is a large maturity jump between sixth and seventh grade.
_ Received an update on the the mental, social and emotional health programs at the school. Director of student services Joe Greget reported that there will be three school psychologists on staff next year as well as two social workers and four licensed advanced counselors to supplement the services provided through Aspirus and Counseling Connection. Greget noted the importance of being aware of mental health as part of overall health.
_ Received an update in the facilities survey. The board held a special meeting last week to review the survey questions and approved sending them out. It will be mailed to district residents and is set to arrive in mailboxes between March 16 and March 23.