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Retirees get day in court

After months of frustration, Halifax County School retirees are getting their day in court this morning at 9:30 when Halifax County School Board members will face the 105 former public school employees and Local Optional Retirement Plan retirees in Halifax County Circuit Court during a motions hearing in the civil case.

School Board trustees are embroiled in this lawsuit over termination of the Local Optional Retirement Plan, a program that had allowed recent retirees to earn 20 percent of their salary at the time of retirement in return for filling in for work at the schools on a part-time or temporary basis. 

The program was designed to pay benefits over seven years.

By eliminating the county schools’ Local Optional Retirement Plan, Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon said the school system realized a savings of $1.4 million in the 2012-13 school year.

Local Optional Retirement Plan retirees sought legal counsel in October hiring Blackburn, Conte, Schilling and Click, P.C., and the lawsuit stemming from the termination of former employees’ Local Optional Retirement Plan was officially filed in January in Halifax County Circuit Court.

Craig Wood serves as the school board’s attorney.

The 105 former public school employees and Local Optional Retirement Plan retirees filed the complaint for declaratory judgment against members of the Halifax County School Board, and legal papers were served to former Chairman Karen Hopkins.

In the months that followed the termination, LORP retirees attended school board meetings and voiced their concerns, shared figures on how the plan saved the school system money and made board members aware of their “feelings of betrayal.”

Speaking on behalf of all the retirees participating in the suit, former Sinai Elementary School Principal Michael Wilborne said earlier this year, “The Halifax County School Board has chosen not to honor their financial obligations…therefore, our attorneys have filed a complaint for declaratory judgment.” 

Bottom line, the retirees want the retirement program reinstated, he said.

According to court documents filed, the school board’s purpose in adopting LORP was to encourage early retirement as a budget-cutting and cost-saving measure.

The suit referred to the school board’s bylaws in effect at the time each of the plaintiffs contracted with the school board for the LORP benefits.

 “The school board reserves the right to amend or terminate the program when it appears it is in the best interest of the board to do so. Participants already in the program will not be affected by the amendment or termination of the program,” the legal papers stated.

On June 28, school board members deleted the language that “participants already in the program will not be affected by the amendment or termination of the program,” and on July 24 school board members immediately terminated the program by a 7 to 0 vote with ED-8 trustee Walter Potts absent.

The complaint accused the school board of “deliberately, willfully, arbitrarily and capriciously breaching its contract with each plaintiff by voting to terminate the LORP for plaintiffs, effective immediately.”

It further stated, “That an actual justiciable controversy ripe for adjudication exists between the parties, as plaintiffs, each having relied to her/her detriment on the contractual promises and obligations of defendant, Halifax County School Board, have been permanently and severely financially and monetarily damaged by the school board’s aforesaid breach.”

The complaint concluded LORP retirees are asking the court for a declaratory judgment confirming the school board’s contractual obligation to the retirees under LORP and ordering the school board to reinstate the program.

It also asked the school board to perform all its contractual obligations, to reimburse the retirees for their attorney’s fee and costs incurred and for such other relief as the court may deem fit.

The Virginia Supreme Court appointed the Honorable Charles L. Strauss from Pittsylvania County to hear Monday’s case.