SDUHSD board approves one-time stipend for employees who give early retirement notice

At the Dec. 8 meeting, the San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) board approved one new method they that they hope will help the bottom line this year: a one-time retirement stipend for employees who provide early notice. Per the new offer, employees who provide a notice of intent to retire in January will receive an amount equal to 5 percent of their annual salary. Those who provide their notice to retire in the month of February will receive an amount equal to 2 percent.

The district hopes that the stipend will encourage a “significant” number of employees to submit retirement notices early rather than wait until the end of the year. The early retirements will help find the best qualified applicants in a shrinking pool, according to SDUHSD Interim Superintendent Eric Dill.

“The shortage of highly-qualified teachers in California is well-documented,” Dill said, noting that 75 percent of California districts are facing shortages.

The main reason for the shortage stems from fewer college students enrolling in teacher prep programs paired with a growing number of teachers reaching retirement age.

Shortages are even higher at the high school level because teachers require single-subject credentials — the most difficult areas to recruit are special education, mathematics and science.

Dill said in the last year, SDUHSD has struggled in finding teachers with the appropriate credentials to meet the district’s needs. The longer they wait to recruit, the more difficult it is to find qualified candidates. As has been addressed by parents in a previous meeting, many classes began this fall with substitutes and the district currently has three certificated openings with no qualified applicants.

“The earlier we can determine the number of teachers who intend to retire and the credentials held by those teachers, the earlier we can begin our efforts to recruit highly-qualified teachers to fill those vacancies,” Dill said.

Prior to the recession, about a dozen teachers retired each year, however, over the past three years retirements have been in the single digits and the number of teachers reaching retirement age has ballooned. Dill believes they have over 40 teachers who are eligible to retire, which could result in $2 million in savings.

“Because of the spread in compensation between starting and experienced teachers, the district can recognize substantial savings when a new teacher replaces a retiree,” Dill said. “The earlier that staff can determine what savings they will achieve from retirements, the better they can plan for the budget.”

The vote for the retirement stipend was not unanimous, with Salazar voting against it.

“Paying our own teachers a bonus or whatever you want to call it to retire makes zero sense,” Salazar said.

He said a more proactive solution would be signing bonuses for positions such as much-needed science teachers.

“To encourage senior teachers to retire by paying them a 5 percent bonus I think makes no sense at all. Plus, all of these studies I have read about teacher shortages say that they’re all primarily in rural and economically-disadvantaged areas, which we’re not,” Salazar said. “To have a policy where we need our teachers to retire in order to reduce our deficit and prevent bankruptcy or insolvency, I think, is ludicrous.”

“I don’t want to lose any good teachers, I’m afraid of that,” SDUHSD Trustee Mo Muir said, although she did vote for the one-time stipend due to her concerns with the projected $9.7 million deficit.

Parent Steven McDowell also spoke out against the stipend, claiming it was doubtful that it would save the district any money and questioning the need when staff is already given the highest compensation in the county.

“The district is not in a situation where it needs to significantly reduce total staffing. These valued employees will need to be replaced and many of the retirements will happen without this incentive,” McDowell wrote in a letter to the board, noting that the proposed incentive also does not have a cap or a limit. “The district already stated they are having a hard time finding some replacements. This action could make that situation worse.”

McDowell said the stipend also appears to be a “salary spike”and since the money will be owed prior to an employee retiring, employees could request that it be included in their compensation for determining future retirement benefits, costing the state money through higher pension payments.

“This decision will have long-term consequences to taxpayers statewide paying the bill,” McDowell said.

McDowell also said 5 percent seemed “excessive” and that the money could be better used in the classroom.

Dill said what the board approved is really providing an incentive for employees to give an early notice so the district can know how many teachers they need to replace and what credential areas they need to target. Before the shortage, retirements were manageable because there were many teachers to pick and choose from to find the best, whereas now, they are just trying to get people to apply.

“This is not an incentive to retire and I agree with Mr. McDowell that retirement incentives don’t make sense and they often don’t pay off, that’s why we’ve never done a traditional retirement incentive…This is recognizing that we have a very big bubble, well over 40 teachers, who are retiring age,” Dill said. “If we see this bubble all make a move at the same time in one year it will be extraordinarily difficult to react to if it comes too late.”

Dill said strategies that other districts have taken include offering signing bonuses or stipends for hard-to-recruit, high-need positions, increasing compensation and removing salary caps on experience. A similar school district to SDUHSD in Irvine offers a flat $5,000 retirement stipend every year.

SDUHSD Trustee Beth Hergesheimer said she, too, felt that the stipends were maybe too generous but at a recent California School Boards Association meeting she learned how critical an issue the shortage was. She said she would like to see a conversation in the future about removing salary caps.

“What I want to understand is that (the retirement stipend) is a one-year approach and then we’re looking at other approaches in future years,” Hergesheimer said.

Salazar agreed that signing bonuses for special education or science where they have the most needs would be the most proactive solution.

“I think that this is not proactive, I think, if anything, you already know a vast majority of teachers are going to retire anyway and this is really just a waste of money,” Salazar said.