Teachers may get paid to leave South Whidbey schools

Teachers looking for a little — or a lot — of incentive to call it a career with South Whidbey schools may have their reason soon.

The South Whidbey School Board approved a proposal to award $2,500 to teachers who announce they will resign.

“The whole point is to save morale,” said District Superintendent Jo Moccia. “It really lowers morale when you have to do a reduction in force.”

South Whidbey has gone through several consecutive years of reducing its teaching ranks, support staff and para-educators. Dwindling enrollment has decreased state and federal funding, leaving the district to cut salaries and benefits which make up 80 percent of its $15 million budget, including programs such as counseling and the outdoor adventure class.

Moccia and the school board worked with the teachers union, the South Whidbey Education Association, on the incentive plan. The union supports the idea, officials said.

“SWEA feels the amount is reasonable and fair compensation for additional duties as outlined by the district in order to receive the incentive,” said SWEA co-presidents Val Brown and Jan McNeely in a joint statement.

“SWEA would like to recognize Dr. Moccia for her attempt in being proactive in seeking out ways to mitigate another huge reduction in force in this district,” they added.

First notices for employees who are facing possible layoffs are sent out in April. Moccia and the district wanted to be ahead of the staff cuts and offer some teachers a chance to pocket an extra couple thousand dollars if they give notice by March 15.

Officials said reduction-in-force notices usually outnumber the amount of staff that is eventually cut, which is unavoidable but means added stress to the staff members who are on the bubble.

“As we send out those early RIF notices, it has to include anyone who might be there,” explained School Board Chairman Steve Scoles.

“It’s two to three times larger than the people we actually end up losing. That puts people through the agony of a long process that can start in April and last all the way through August or September,” he said.

The school district projects 70 fewer students enrolling next school year. That could mean as much as $1 million in lost funding. Once again, South Whidbey School District is preparing for an uncertain spring and summer as it tries to fill funding gaps.

Some teachers have announced their departure from South Whidbey schools as late as August. In those instances, the schools have rushed to fill the vacancy, sometimes to late avail which led to overcrowded classes at times.

“That leaves us in a spot where we have to fill that spot from somebody on the RIF list, who may have already gone and found another job,” Scoles said.

Washington state has laws that prohibit businesses from forcing employees to retire. Instead, the qualifications for a teacher to participate in the early notice incentive program are broad enough to include an employee working at least four days per week who has been with the district for 10 years.

“We’re not trying to force anyone to leave. We’re just trying to give that extra encouragement to those that can or want to leave,” Scoles said.

“It helps those teachers who may be ready to retire get that extra push,” he added.

A clause was included that a minimum of five early notification resignation letters must be received by the March 15 deadline for the incentives to be processed. Should only four be sent in, those teachers will be given until March 30 to rescind their decision.

The South Whidbey School District pays about $125,000 in unemployment benefits. Losing a higher-paid veteran teacher, but replacing that position with a newer, cheaper teacher may curb those costs and save the district some money.

“It will save the district in terms of unemployment [payments],” Moccia said.

Moccia proposed the incentive, which is based on a program she offered while in her previous superintendent’s position with the Averill Park Central School District in New York.

McNeely said she appreciated Moccia’s willingness to think past conventional means — staff reductions — to alleviate the forthcoming staff cuts. The two programs, and the two districts, are not alike, however.

“It was very different. It was very effective, but it was a more significant amount of money that was allowable,” Moccia said.

The cash incentive is only active for this year, though it may be reconsidered again. Teachers who take advantage of it may be asked to participate in an exit interview.

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