Education Funding: It’s About Priorities, Part 2

I just don’t get it. Less than one full week after a story in the Independent Record that suggested the Helena School District was facing a potential budget shortfall of $1.4 million, the district met for contract negotiations and and decided that it was appropriate to offer a bonus of as much as $12,000 to experienced teachers who retire and give notice to the school district:

The permanent language change says if a teacher notifies the district the year he or she wants to retire prior to Jan. 15, the educator receives $9,000 in termination pay. It also says that if an educator notifies the district the year before intended retirement, he or she receives a $5,000 stipend and $7,000 in termination pay in the final year.

This is a permanent change, meaning the district won’t be able to entice retirements in the future when budgets are tight, and represents a wholesale shift of resources from younger teachers and students to the senior staff, who make as much twice the salary of beginning teachers.

If that kind of money exists in the system, it seems like there might be a few more sensible ways to spend it. If 15 teachers were to retire under this system next year, the school district will pay out $180,000, with no return on that investment. That kind of money could:

  • place 200 computers in classrooms.
  • hire 5 new teachers.
  • offer a sizeable loan forgiveness programs for new teachers, who find it difficult to stay in Montana after the debt of college.
  • create sensible, effective professional development opportunities for staff members.
  • develop new programs for students or restore those that have been cut.

I don’t mean to question the effort and skill of teachers who have dedicated their lives to the profession, but they are already well-compensated. Prioritizing additional resources for teachers on their way out of the system, especially in a difficult budgetary climate, seems reckless and wrong.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • Looks to have been a union request. Accountability requires transparency which requires visibility. As I have said, put all of the cards face up on the table and in a voters pamphlet 1 month before a levy ballot.

  • Actually, if you read the article, you'll see that it was decided by consensus of the district and union negotiators. Both sides had to approve it.

    I know your narrative is that unions have destroyed America–somehow they probably caused the banking collapse as well–but you might want to work on some more material.

  • As a teacher that received an incentive to retire, I think your fuzzy math is the problem. I didn't teach in the Helena school system, but an agreement between our local school board and our association offered us an incentive. Because many teachers at the top end of the salary schedule are close to retirement and because school districts are facing tight budgets, it makes sense to offer an incentive to encourage experienced teachers to retire. If a teacher making $50,000 retires, even with the incentive, the district will save money when it hires a new teacher. For every year the experienced teacher is retired, the district saves money, even after paying the incentive. After figuring the salaries of new teachers and the incentives, our district realized a saving of $12,000 per teacher that retired over the past two years. While we don't get the GM CEO kind of retirement package, it does allow us to pay our own health insurance and it bumps up our retirement a little. And it saves a young teacher's job (sometimes two jobs). It's a win-win situation.

  • How does it "save" money if it is now a permanent part of the agreement, though?

    The retirement incentive used to be used to encourage some retirements in years when staffing costs were going to be too high. This doesn't do that at all. It's just a 'going out the door' bonus.

    We need to invest in teachers at the beginning of the scale and encourage bright young people to become teachers. One way to do that would be to offer things like loan forgiveness at the start of careers, not more benefits for people on their way out.

    • Probably the incentive is offered over a period of years; that's what ours does. So a teacher earning $50,000 retires and gets the incentive over a period of years, say $5000 a year, and a new teacher is hired for say $30,000. That means the district saves the retired teacher salary and pays out $5000, plus the $30,000 for the new hire or $35 grand. That figures into a $15,000 savings, which grows smaller each year as the new hire makes more salary. Eventually, the $5000 incentive ends, which creates a larger savings for the district. Figure out what happens if 20 teachers agree to retire and take the incentive. That should be around a $300,000 savings, which means the district can hire a few more teachers, or another administrator. Okay, that last statement was in jest.

      • Right, but if they just retire, as many will, inevitably, the savings are passed on anyway. You gain the savings of $35,000 without giving away $12,000 of it.

        An incentive is designed to encourage retirements at a particular time for budget savings. This is a just a bonus, nothing more.

  • Pogie, if you actually read my comment you would see that I did read the article. The increase did not spring sui generis. You statement about my "narrative" is a figment of your imagination.

    I took you at your word that you wanted accountability. Guess I was wrong.

  • Yeah, you really caught me.

    A lot of teachers who don't want accountability are openly calling for an explanation of benefits paid to other union members.

    Your narrative is pretty clear: you believe unions are a destructive force. I believe they are responsible for most of the gains made by working Americans in terms of health benefits, job security, and working conditions in the past century.

    At least I am willing to admit my perspective. Pretending you are a neutral observer when you clearly have an anti-union perspective is just disingenuous.

  • Pogie, I too believe unions are responsible for those gains. Coal miners didn't achieve improvements by waiting for manna to fall from heaven. I am not pretending anything.

    These issues aren't about me or about you. Any effort to make it so is extremely disingenuous when you have called for accountability and priority setting to take center stage.

    I have read we spend more on education per pupil in this country than any other country in the world and we continue to decline in comparative testing. I want ALL players to put their cards on the table, as I have explicity said. Accountability is dependent on transparency which requires visibility.

  • Okay, Craig, what is your point then? What is your bold policy initiative? Cut funding to failing schools? Create some mythical competition so the elites can get their money back? I am tired of right wingers pushing criticisms on education (and, I'll admit, schools have big problems) only to fall back on the same tired mantra…

  • Jason, you construct a horse and man of straw here. The topic is roughly about the PROCESS of setting educational funding priorities. That takes holding the players to account for their actions which is dependent on transparency which requires visibility.

    • What's not transparent enough to you? What would you like schools and unions to provide?

      By law, you're entitled to any budget information you want, aren't you? Ask for it from the school district of your choice.

  • Fuzzy math again. Many teachers who have over 30 years in so that they are eligible to retire continue to teach because they need the health insurance. Thus, an incentive covering health insurance may get them out the door sooner. For example, if a teacher making $50,000 a year stays for three years, that's $150,000. If that teacher retires and a new one making $32,000 is hired, that is $96,000 over that same time period. Factor in the $5000 a year incentive, which may be good for 2-5 years, and that adds $15,000 over three years. So that's still $111,000 (if my math is right) for a savings of $39,000 over the three years. Now multiply that by 20 teachers who may decide to retire because of the incentive. (I'll let you do the math.)

    • Thanks for the thoughts, by the way. I do appreciate the discussion, even if I can't get back until the end of the work day.

      So which would be more valuable: giving people a few thousand extra dollars at the start of their careers, allowing them to invest responsibly and pay back loans, or tacking on thousands at the end of careers?

      What you are describing is a sensible incentive program to encourage cost savings. Of course, you're talking about an incentive program that is not at all like the one being proposed here, which is specifically envisioned as not being an incentive, because we prefer not to use that terminology.

      You are talking about an incentive program that is implemented over a period of 5 years. We are talking about a lump sum distributed over just over 12 months in this proposal. That's certainly no more valuable for ongoing health insurance costs than giving people more money at the start of their careers.

      You also mention teachers 'who have over 30 years in' benefiting from this program. Once again, we're not talking about the same program. This incentive will be available for teachers with 20 years in the system, many years before retirement. That's not a bridge to entitlement programs for seniors.

      In the abstract, I'm not sure that I disagree with you, or the idea of districts using targeted incentives. The specific proposal I am describing seems quite different, though.

      Finally, it seems to me that the underlying ideology is wrong. Maybe teaching shouldn't have unsustainable salary scales that pay so much more to those at the end of their careers. Does a 20 year veteran really work 2 times better or harder than a beginning teacher? If they don't, why the huge disparity in pay? If they do, why create incentives to push them out the door?

      • "Does a 20 year veteran really work 2 times harder?" Does a person with a Master's degree work harder than a person who doesn't have one? Probably not; they both probably work equally hard, but the person with the Master's degree gets paid more. We all know that first year teachers put in the most effort, but that's not how the pay goes. Plus, I know I was a much better teacher after I earned my Master's than I was before I earned it, but I was not as good a teacher my last year. I was getting burned out, which I actually thought couldn't happen. As for the incentive, it's all about the money. The district, in our case, could save money with the incentive. That doesn't sound like your district, which is ironic since our district took a lot of our policy from Helena's.

  • What would a pamphlet possibly say, Craig? Given that districts make their financial records entirely open to the public, wouldn't distilling it into a pamphlet just lead to accusations of misrepresentation?

    It seems like you are raising such an insignificant point. The real debate should be about priorities, so I think Jason's point is a fair one: where do you see excessive expenditures in education? I've outlined some on this blog. I'd be happy to debate some other ideas.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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