The Amphitheater Governing Board reached a compromise over the early retirement plan and possibly restored trust with employees at its Nov. 15 special public meeting.

After a brief executive session to discuss the matter, the board voted unanimously to let the district and the Amphi Education Association go through the district's meet and confer policy to decide what to do with the fated plan - something employees had been advocating for since first learning of the proposal to dissolve the plan altogether.

AEA president John Lewandowski stated at both meetings that the meet and confer policy was violated by the district since the early retirement plan is a fringe benefit.

While the policy does state that fringe benefits are "items to be considered" when deciding whether to meet and confer to decide changes to district policies, the policy also allows for the governing board to make decisions about changing policies "when necessary" and "shall not be subject to the concurrence" of employees as long as the employees are notified "as soon as practicable."

Todd Jaeger, Amphi's legal counsel, said even though the early retirement plan is not a policy in the fact that it is not in the books as one, it is "in a more general sense."

Jaeger also said that while the district did not go through the process of selecting committees to negotiate changes to the early retirement plans, it did meet and confer with teachers "in a different way" by putting the item on an agenda and allowing teachers to speak at meetings.

But now, four members from the AEA selected by Lewandowski and four district representatives selected by Superintendent Vicki Balentine will expedite the meet and confer process and negotiate what to do with the early retirement plan by the board's Dec. 11 meeting.

"I'm very optimistic," Balentine said after the meeting. "I certainly hope we can get this resolved."

Some teachers also expressed their feelings that trust is being restored in the district between the board and district employees.

"We don't trust you," said Bill Thomas, a teacher at Coronado K-8. "But what you did tonight is going to go a long way to bring it back."

Marc Saab, a science teacher at Canyon del Oro High School, said he was happy that the board decided to acknowledge the concerns of teachers, but added he is still cautious.

"It's nice that the board listened to employees and responded on this, but there is still a deep-seated problem between the district and its employees," he said.

And although the decision to meet and confer was unanimous, some employees expressed their concerns about the board having animosity toward teachers.

"I never heard the board say anything that showed animosity toward teachers," said board President Ken Smith. "It's been most teacher friendly. But it has a financial situation it must meet. They might not like what we have to do."

Lewandowski said he was most concerned about boardmember Mary Schuh, who spent much of the meeting reading a book.

"Mary Schuh appeared to have no interest in what was going on," Lewandowski said.

"After a while, it's the same thing," Schuh said after the meeting about concerns raised by teachers. "They don't want to take time to understand the district's financial problems."

The original goal of the meeting was to make a final decision about whether to adopt proposed revisions to the current plan. That goal changed, however, after the board listened to teachers admonish the district at the board's Nov. 13 meeting for not negotiating the changes with them before putting the item on an agenda.

"It's not about the money, it's about the process," said Sally Secrist, an AEA member who met with district officials before the meeting to discuss revisions to the plan.

The current plan provides employees who wish to retire early, as long as the employee has 10 years with the district and is at least 50 years old, a cash benefit paid out to them over the span of 10 years or until they turn 65, whichever comes first. The benefit is based on a formula using the employee's base salary.

The employee would also receive health benefits over the same period of time, but both the cash and health benefits can only be received as long as the employee provides 20 days of service a year.

But that same plan is also costing the district millions to maintain, which is leaving the already financially strapped district searching for funds.

Next year, the district will spend almost $4 million on the plan, $600,000 on this year's participants alone, Jaeger said.

The plan was originally designed to save the district money, with the idea being that more expensive employees would leave only to be replaced by less expensive employees.

But with beginning teachers' salaries rising and the national teacher shortage thrown into the mix, Jaeger said the district has no desire to provide incentives for experienced teachers to leave.

After the board's Oct. 23 meeting, when the future of the early retirement plan was first thrown up in the air, Balentine met with Secrist, Lewandowski and other concerned employees to discuss modifications to the plan.

But those meetings were a moot point, some teachers said, because the district did not talk to AEA members before presenting two alternatives to revising the early retirement plan.

But now both of those plans are wiped away as both parties will go to the drawing board to develop new alternatives, Lewandowski said.

"That's not to say that the process will guarantee something everyone will be happy with," said boardmember Mike Prout.

Prout was concerned that the meet and confer process could be complicated, especially in such a short period of time, based on past experiences with negotiations.

"It was long on meet and short on confer," he said.

Boardmember Nancy Young Wright said meet and confer might have been something the board should have considered from the beginning, but she said she feared there wouldn't be enough time to go through the process and that old meet and confer processes were much more informal.

"But this is very encouraging," she said of the district's willingness to expedite the process.

"I don't feel anyone had any animosity," she continued. "I believe we're all just frustrated and tired."

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