Retirement deadline concerns teachers; board seeks resolution

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

— Thirty-five to 40 Janesville teachers are anxiously waiting to see what the school board will decide about their retirement benefits.

The teachers, who are eligible for retirement this year, must declare their intention to retire by April 15.

If they don't retire, they risk whatever changes the board might make.

Non-teaching staff members face the same problem, if not the same deadline, with a total of about 90 employees eligible to retire this year, officials said.

The board met with employees Tuesday to discuss possible retirement-benefit changes.

Elementary teacher Nancy Bandsma said she's not ready to retire, but she might.

"I've had a lot of sleepless nights worrying about what's going to come down the pike," Bandsma said.

High school teacher Linda Miller had a similar problem. She's put in 30 years in the district and is close to retirement but not yet eligible.

"What's going to happen to people like me?" she asked.

Board President Bill Sodemann said the board is "very concerned" and that a solution "is being discussed."

Sodemann and Superintendent Karen Schulte said part of the solution would be discussed when the board met behind closed doors later Tuesday night.

"We hope to have those answers for you, definitely before April 15. I think all board members are in agreement on that," Sodemann said.

Board member Deborah Schilling said April 15 would be too late, that employees needed a week or so to consider their options.

At least some board members are interested in changing the current system, which offers up to eight years of health insurance after retirement, depending on the number of years worked and unused sick days accrued.

Workers have used the benefit to retire early, giving them the security of health insurance until they are eligible for Medicare.

With health care costs skyrocketing uncontrollably, the board, like many others around the state, is looking for a way to offer a benefit whose cost they can predict and control.

About 20 employees attending the meeting applauded when board member Kevin Murray said they were in no way agreeing that the existing benefit should be changed.

Murray later said the board should negotiate changes with the unions, but no one else supported that idea.

Murray also got no support when he said all current employees should get the current retirement plan, and only new hires would be affected by any changes.

Meanwhile, it was revealed at Tuesday's board meeting that Sodemann and board member Kristin Hesselbacher have been meeting with district union representatives to work on a plan that would protect employees who are within several years of retirement—no firm number of years has been decided—while changing the benefit in a way that helps the district financially.

Dave Parr, president of the teachers union, said during a break that he was pleased that those discussions were on the right track, "but we don't know (what will happen). That's just board members talking to us."

Parr was not pleased with Tuesday's meeting, because he said the discussion included employees' concerns and ideas but no reaction or discussion from board members, who seemed content to hold their own discussion later.

Board members seemed interested in grandfathering the change, so that workers closest to retirement would get the benefit they had bargained for in previous contracts.

But a tough call will be where to draw the line between the grandfathered and those who would get the new retirement plan.

Sodemann had a detailed plan worked out, apparently the plan he had proposed to the unions, but which he said hadn't been costed out, yet.

Sodemann suggested that if the board could not decide in time, it could allow teachers to sign their contracts with an option to opt out and retire later, something the board has already approved for administrators.

The board was allowed to meet out of the public eye Tuesday because of an exemption to the open-meetings law that allows for closed meetings when negotiations with unions are discussed.

Last updated: 7:57 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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