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School board stands firm on retirement plan decision

Facing a packed house of angry and disenchanted school system retirees, the Halifax County School Board stood firm Monday night on its decision to terminate the Local Option Retirement Plan.

After hearing a dozen retirees call the board’s decision to terminate the program an ultimate “betrayal,” ED-8 trustee Walter Potts offered a motion to reinstate the program, only to see his motion die for the lack of a second from another board member.

Approximately 200 people listened as former and current retirees expressed their concerns to Halifax County School Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon and school board members over the termination of the Local Option Retirement Plan.

The retirees asked in no uncertain terms for the school board to reinstate the program, voicing their frustrations that the current school board can not be trusted.

“How do you plan to keep good teachers here if you can’t be trusted with your word,” said Brenda Scott, who served as a physical science teacher in the system for 36 years.

Corlys Ballou, a LORP participant since 2009 and an educator for 39 years, said she was led to believe this was a year-to-year decision, and although she didn’t approve of it being discussed in closed session, she asked the board to “please reconsider” their decision.

Former Sinai Elementary Principal Michael Wilborne told board members their decision deeply affected the employees who retired this year.

“We, the retirees, did not ask for the retirement package in order to balance the budget. This package was offered to employees through June 30. The budget was balanced by these personnel who retired. If not for them, first, second and maybe third year teachers would have lost jobs,” said Wilborne.

“Ethically and morally the board has made a poor decision. It is a sad day and time for the Halifax County Public School system. Employees can see that this a board who can not be trusted,” he added.

“Frankly I would have expected more consideration, respect and compassion from the board and administration. After this meeting, the only information available to us was online and the newspaper. The first official word came from the executive director of administration on July 30,” said Peggy Strom, a 25-year employee.

Judy Owen, an educator for 35 years, told board members, “As late as July 23, LORP was in effect.” 

“My first reaction was disbelief, then shock, then a profound sense of betrayal,” said Owen when she found out the news about the termination of the program.

Mary Eanes taught English for 27 years at Halifax County High School before she decided to accept the early retirement incentive.

“My colleagues and I were told that the budget had passed for the upcoming school year with the LORP included. By changing the approved policy late in July, this board has made a serious breach of good faith,” said Eanes.

“The retirements of the past three years have saved $7 million, with June of 2012 adding an additional $1 million of savings to the upcoming school budget,” she added.

According to Eanes, by using LORP, teachers were used to fill gaps where positions had not been filled, which was beneficial to the students.

“I’m concerned in the manner this decision was made as well as the spirit. You undertook this measure completely in secret. LORP is a policy issue, not a personnel issue,” said Becky Donner who has served 35 years as an educator at Halifax County High School.

“If you say your decision was for the children, I respectfully disagree,” she added.

Phyllis Jones and Dewey Compton also urged board members to reinstate the program.

Recent retiree, former Halifax County High School Associate Principal Debbie Griles, grilled the board asking, “How could you delete a budget item?”

“You thought the morale was low in the past, it’s rock bottom now for all of us,” said Griles.

“Put aside your personal vendettas. Stop backstabbing those who have worked in the school system. Stop misrepresenting facts. Be honest with employees and the public. Think about the mistake you made,” she added.

Leon Johnson told board members the retirees were all seasoned professionals who always put children first, further describing these individuals as “givers and not takers.”

Diane Holmes, an educator for 37 years, said, “I was told this program was year-to-year, not month-to-month. Does this mean your word means nothing?”

Les Powell spoke on behalf of his wife, Paige, who was an educator in the school system and a participant in LORP for the past two years. 

“When my wife first retired she was told Halifax County Public Schools loved LORP, and it was good for the children. Now the board is saying it’s not. It doesn’t make any sense,” said Powell.

Despite the overwhelming support to reinstate the program from retirees, several attending spoke in favor of the board’s decision.

“I understand where they are coming from. Central office is more concerned about their bank account…I commend the school board on your decision to stick to your guns,” said Tom Stutts.

Ted Bennett said he was stressed to see the divide between the board and the retirees in the room.

“I must tell you I’ve been reading some very contradictory things. I have read reports of parents complaining coming to the school board not having enough money to pay for their school books, and then I’ve read that the teacher’s haven’t had a pay raise in five years…is it LORP that has contributed primarily, if not solely, for the lack of school books for our children and lack of pay raises …then I’ll have to support the school board,” said Bennett.

 Potts, who did not attend the July 24 special called meeting when school board members terminated LORP, sought clarification from fellow trustees on policy changes and LORP discussions.

Under the new policy, employees can obtain a maximum of 60 vacation days.

“Are we telling them that they have to use it or lose it?” asked Potts.

Stating that Halifax County High School Principal Albert Randolph has over 100 days of vacation saved, Potts asked, “Do we actually expect him to take off 50 days from over there at the high school?” 

ED-4 trustee Cheryl Terry explained to Potts the board decided to put a cap on the days because so many retirees were not taking their vacation or sick days, initially costing the school.

 “I don’t see any discussion in the minutes nor do I see any referral for recommendation from the attorney as to whether we should or shouldn’t do this…we did run this by our attorney, who I understand was on vacation. I’m just trying to get some clarification,” said Potts.

Board Chairman Karen Hopkins informed Potts the information was discussed during closed session and the attorney had gotten back with board members through an email which he should have received.

 When Potts questioned board members to read the email out loud to the audience, the board denied, stating it referred to personnel.

“We didn’t discuss policy, we discussed personnel in closed session,” said Hopkins.

“You discussed a specific person in personnel pertaining to LORP?” questioned Potts.

“We discussed a specific individual that was taking advantage of the policy for their own personal benefit,” said ED-5 trustee Dr. Roger Long referring to a comment that was made at the June 28 special called meeting.

Potts said he didn’t know anything about the comment or the individual and pointed out it wasn’t brought up at the July 23 meeting.

He further questioned if the discussion concerned an individual why it wasn’t addressed separately.

“Because the attorney said that was the only problem with LORP at that time was to change the wording,” said Potts. “Seems like I’m getting the same response every one else got, and I’m on the board.” 

Potts questioned the board whether or not they had intentions of reinstituting the LORP and possibly looking at other options in January 2013.

“Nobody has said how much money we have saved,” said Potts.

“Every year Covington brought this to us he told us we were going to be saving money,” he added.

Potts offered a motion to reinstate the program, only to see his motion die for the lack of a second from another board member.

ED-3 trustee Kimberly Farson was absent from Monday’s meeting.

 

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