Dozens may accept early retirement

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In the midst of celebrating 50 years of service to the community, Southwestern College may lose an irreplaceable swath of its culture and institutional memory.  In a cost-cutting measure the governing board is offering special retirement incentives in hopes of taking some of SWC’s highest salaries off the books.

Professors, staff and administrators were given only one month to take advantage of a Supplemental Employee Retirement Plan (SERP) set up by the district to quickly reduce ongoing expenditures. Come July 1, many of the college’s most influential faces will be gone, taking with them institutional knowledge and years of experience.

Interim Vice President of Business and Financial Affairs Bob Temple conservatively projected a savings of $1 million per year if these positions are not replaced. If there is a large number of faculty and administrators that do not need backfilling, the savings could be greater, he said.

There has been a tremendous initial response, Temple said, but final retirement paperwork is not due until May 31. At least 28 employees need to take the plan for it to provide cost savings.  Faculty and classified leaders said they expect many more than that to take the offer.

But Temple said it is too early to tell.

“It’s like snow in Chicago,” he said. “You don’t know when you’re gonna get it or how much you’re gonna get, especially in this short amount of time.”

Temple said SERP provides opportunity for emerging programs, saves money and gives veteran employees the ability to transition. He said without time to contemplate retirement, it is a hard decision.

“I am going to just warn you while there’s a lot of people that have gone and turned in that paperwork,” said Temple. “When I look at the list and see people with 30 and 40 years of service, they are a major part of this institution. You can’t lose that without losing something of great value.”

Working with Keenan Financial Services and Vice-President of Human Resources Michael Kerns, Keenan developed a plan within 30 days. Keenan is the only company that could pull this together so quickly with a pre-approved IRS plan, said Temple. It is designed to offer incentives to those who were not planning on retiring and an added bonus for those who were planning on retiring anyway.

Temple said early retirement incentive programs are used for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they reward long service. He said while that is admirable, it is not what the college is doing now. There is a lot of work involved and if it does not save a substantial amount of money it doesn’t make sense, he said.

Interim Superintendent Denise Whittaker said many people are at retirement age and the college would probably lose some of them within the next five years.

“When you lose that much history it is going to be a shockwave and that much tradition and legacy all at once,” she said. “When you lose 28 or more it is a shock to the institution.”

One of those leaving is Barbara Speidel-Haughey, learning assistant services coordinator, who started teaching in 1973 as an adjunct and was hired in 1980 as full-time faculty. She said it is a job she loves and hates to leave after 38 years. She said she was planning to retire last year but changed her mind at the very last minute, wanting to help the college get back on its feet and get through accreditation.

“I think people not seeing a lot of familiar faces will feel like an empty hole,” said Speidel-Haughey. “What I see we will be missing the most will be the history that those of us that have been here so long and what we have contributed. I think that history is important to an institution to keep people that know the history in the present life of the campus.”

Dean Trish Axsom, school of career/technical education and learning assistance, started her career at SWC in 1983. She said she has seen two previous retirement incentive efforts where many people left suddenly. The college survived it quite well, she said, but it does change things.

“I am not so sure that it is not for the better,” she said. “Change is an odd animal. There are some changes that come about because fate comes into play, with circumstances beyond your control.”

Classified union president Bruce MacNintch said there has been quite a bit of interest in the SERP program with 59 classified that meet eligibility requirements.

“It is a little bittersweet for me to realize that some of the people that I have been working with for 18 years will be leaving us all,” he said. “Southwestern is going to be a bit different next fall.”

Axsom said she thinks the district is going in a positive direction and allowing qualified people to go sooner will save considerable money. She said leaders of any capacity have an understanding that change is inevitable and the ability to manage it benefits the college.

“Is it going to bring about change?  You bet,” said Axsom. “It could be really big. Is it going to be bad? I don’t think big and bad go together necessarily. Is there going to be chaos? A little bit, I think. Chaos is not necessarily bad.”

Temple said it is a life-changing decision and people are asked to make it in a very short time. People normally do not retire in times like this when the economy is unstable and there are several good reasons why people may want to stay at SWC, he said. Student and colleague relationships are a huge reason why long-term employees do not want to leave. Many professors who take the retirement plan will be able to return to teach part-time.

“To all of a sudden retire on short notice and be gone, no goodbye parties, no saying farewell, that is a difficult thing,” said Temple. “The ability to come back and teach helps transition without losing a lot of history.”

Speidel-Haughey said she stayed on because there were so many problems with the former superintendant and political things going on that she was concerned about her program.

“I wanted to ensure that tutoring services were available to students and not harmed any more than what had already happened,” she said.

Speidel-Haughey said with so many students using the Academic Success Center it is important to maintain that opportunity for students to get what they need.

“We have fantastic tutors,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that this program was as sound as we could possibly make it, to pull the loose ends together then have someone else come in and take over the program.”

Whittaker said the budget is more than 83 percent personnel and benefits, and there is not enough money in the remaining 17 percent to carve out $12 million. To balance the budget there can be only minimal backfilling. Creating an incentive for people to leave earlier than they would have is cost effective and creates a decrease in existing salary expenses.

“We probably won’t see salary increases for three to five years until the budget turns around,” said Whittaker. “A lot of people do not want to work in this environment, because it is very hard.”

Incentives provide 85 percent of a retiree’s salary and there are different payment options. It can be a one-time check or a tax shelter giving them monthly income over five years.

“We would gain $1 million for every year we do not backfill those who leave,” she said. “I anticipate to backfill a handful and it is planned that way.”

Most faculty positions can be backfilled with less expensive part-time adjuncts, Whittaker said. She said eventually the college would want to replace them with full-time professors. Classified positions are more difficult to leave vacant, she said.

“As long as you hold off as long as you can, you have that savings every year,” she said.

Axsom said the budget is one thing we cannot control. The state budget “is what it is” and colleges are reliant on state revenue for funding. Choices have to be made to remain within the budget.

“Retirement incentives are a way of encouraging people that are close to retirement,” she said. “And here is what is interesting. I was going to go next year anyway. With incentives it pencils out for me to go out now and there are other circumstances in my life that make it advantageous for me to go.”

People considering retirement may find motivation to leave, she said.

“We are all going to be replaced at some time, the question is at what level,” she said.

Axsom said faculty in her department that she spoke to are coming back as adjuncts, with the exception of one. She said it shows the professionals they are, investing a lifetime in teaching.

“It’s a calling,” said Axsom. “I feel passionate the same way. We hold a piece of its history that only we have.”

After working with some colleagues for more than 20 years, retirement is a very difficult decision, she said.

“They are not just strong bonds, they are friendships,” said Axsom. “Their commitment to the college, the programs, I feel greatly invested in it.”

Temple said the intention is to avoid lay-off. He acknowledged that instruction could be affected.

“What we are planning is not to replace anybody other than hourly on faculty,” said Temple. “There are going to be some exceptions and we are not going to be able to hire in time enough for the fall. I have encouraged and let everybody know that we are not planning on replacing any of the faculty unless we absolutely have to on a full-time basis.”

Temple said this creates the largest savings. He said the college is contemplating reorganization for administrative and classified employees. For key vacancies the college is looking at promotion from within, consolidating positions to get through difficult financial times.

Final applications are due May 20. There is a seven-day cooling off period where they have the opportunity to rescind. Temple said he should know the number of intended retirees by the end of May and then provide an accurate figure of savings. Classified personnel do not generate as much in savings, but Temple said it is necessary to offer the same program to everyone and it has to be their choice to participate in the program under IRS guidelines.

“Classifieds are the backbone of the institution,” said Temple. “There are not as many of those positions that you can do without having a major negative impact. What we need is a combination.”

Temple said faculty coming back to teach makes a good sense. It is a way for them to transition into retirement and still be part of the institution, not losing everything at once.

“They were the best people available when we hired them,” said Temple. “That doesn’t cease when they retire. Early retirement programs have a real disadvantage because you lose a huge amount of history of your institution and some really key, core people.”

Speidel-Haughey said she went through all of the agony of retiring last year. She said she spent many days in tears, lamenting, wondering if it was the right decision.

“This year of course the incentive is there, which is an extra bonus for me,” she said. “But I also know that I am doing something for the college, too. Giving back to the college financially after being here so long. This will help the college weather the storms that are coming.”

Speidel-Haughey said she loves the idea of coming back and working for the college on a different level. She said this is a great impact on the faculty, staff and always in the forefront, the students. She said the ability to come back and fill in holes.

Andy MacNeill, Shared Consultation Council (SCC) co-chair, said the college would look at specific areas to create greater efficiencies. Much of that depends on seeing who participates in SERP. It is going to change the structure of the college, he said.

“Remember one of our values is to keep jobs,” he said. “In talking about efficiencies one of the things we are going to look at is if people take advantage of the early retirement incentive is how can we shift things around and make it more efficient without having to replace those positions.”

Sometimes programs go with people and sometimes they need to, said Axsom. They are not viable anymore and some of that will occur by attrition.

“It is a good thing for the college to look anew at things,” said Axsom. “I really believe that most people would say that administrators are more expendable than the rank and file. That has been a tendency. Less administrators and do a little shaving.”

Temple said it is amazing how community colleges continue to do so much with so little. And after seeing it done many times it does not depend on leadership.

“It goes back to that core and values of an institution,” said Temple. “Teaching, learning, training and the commitment of that core staff.”

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