Santa Barbara school board member Virginia Alvarez.
Santa Barbara school board member Virginia Alvarez seen at the Nov. 15 meeting. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

Not so fast.

Amid heated salary negotiations, the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s proposal to offer an early retirement to teachers and staff in order to save millions of dollars fell flat at this week’s board meeting.

“It seems to me that this is extremely insensitive to our teachers, especially our senior teachers,” board member Virginia Alvarez said. “No matter how we frame it, no matter how it is packaged, the message that is given is that their experience, what they have given to this district is not being honored. I personally do not agree with that.”

Superintendent Hilda Maldonado took an item to the board Tuesday night that would offer teachers and classified staff the opportunity to retire early and earn up to 90% of their salaries.

About 411 employees would be eligible for early retirement. Public Agency Retirement Services presented the various scenarios and estimated that about 90 employees would accept the retirement.

The amount of savings would be dependent on the number of employees who accepted the retirement terms and the number of positions that the district would replace. For teachers, the estimated costs ranged from $404,000 if 90% of positions were replaced to $15 million if zero positions were replaced.

For classified employees, the number ranged from $1.3 million in savings if 80% of positions were replaced to $12 million if zero positions were replaced.

Going into the meeting, Maldonado wanted the board to approve the plan, solicit interest from teachers and staff, and then based on the potential savings, decide whether to move forward with the program.

Karen McBride, a retired teacher, said such a scenario was a problem.

“A teacher would have to make that irrevocable resignation and then not know whether they are actually going to get this benefit because you might not have enough people who sign up for it,” McBride told the board.

She questioned the logic of encouraging teachers to retire.

“You are already struggling to keep classrooms filled with certificated staff, so this seems like a risky proposition to me,” McBride said.

The district and the Santa Barbara Teachers Association are tangled in a high-profile, controversial battle over salary negotiations and a new contract.

“I just don’t know that the timing is right, just given the sentiment that we just went through,” said board president Wendy Sims-Moten, referring to teachers who have recently been critical of the district over salaries.

The district failed to spend 55% of its budget last year for teacher salaries as required by state law. The district is seeking a “waiver” for the lack of payments, instead of paying the teachers.

Superintendent Maldonado said the plan was worth considering.

“At this time of year, we would be getting resignations or announcements of retirements anyway,” Maldonado said.

Later in the meeting, she said, “This is not something that would be done without some conversation, without some analysis that we would bring back to you at the end of the process.”

She also said the district is overstaffed with teachers because of hires made a year ago with one-time funds.

Kim Tilton, who said she is on the executive board of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association, opposed the plan, particularly on such short notice. The soonest she heard about it was when the agenda for the meeting came out three days before Tuesday’s meeting.

“I can tell you this is going to land real bad,” she said. “As someone who represents my fellow teachers, as someone who has been working for 12 years, I constantly mentor new teachers because we have such a high turnover rate. We need to maintain our most experienced staff.”

In the end, the board opted to take no action and instead discuss the matter at a future meeting, after consulting with the labor representatives.

“My biggest concern is that human component,” Alvarez said. “I want to make sure that human component is valued, addressed and that we don’t do anything that has unintended consequences, ‘that they are trying to push me out.’ That is not the case at all.”