Last updated: April 08. 2013 10:10PM - 960 Views
By - mguydish@civitasmedia.com - (570) 991-6112

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AL GORDON was a bit vexed when the article ran on The Times Leader front page on March 26.

The Northwest Area School Board member offered a few counters to the story I had written, which outlined concerns raised by a recent report from the state Auditor General’s Office.

The report cited legal but “excessive benefits,” focusing on a teacher who retired at the age of 40 with district-paid health insurance to age 65, at a staggering potential cost of $424,700 after only 10 years of work.

The Auditor General’s Office also pointed to a “health benefit waiver” payment to then-Superintendent Nancy Tkatch, who in January, 2011, requested and received a $3,360, 25 percent of the $13,440 premium for husband and wife coverage. Such waivers are meant to encourage a teacher to accept health insurance coverage when available through a spouse employed outside the district.

The Auditor General’s Office didn’t object to the payment to Tkatch, it objected to the board’s failure to vote on the payment at a public meeting.

Gordon wrote a letter responding to all this. He noted the early-retirement package had been negotiated into the contract long ago. He also said the insurance offer “has to be placed in context in order to understand why the teacher received such largess.

“The individual was responsible for a program that parents and students demanded and was not being run properly. The teacher was talked to a number of times but would not perform adequately,” Gordon wrote. “It was decided that the teacher could retire. Perhaps it was a bad choice rather than taking action to try to get the teacher removed, but the public should be aware about how difficult it is to get a teacher who is tenured removed for reasons other than moral turpitude.”

Gordon also pointed out — as mentioned in the story — that the early-retirement incentive disappears at the end of the recently signed contract. And he notes that Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed changes that would make it easier to remove poor teachers.

Regarding the payment to Tkatch, Gordon wrote that “board members were not happy that such a request was made,” but that “there appeared some justification” for it. He agrees “the public should have been informed of the agreement,” and admits the only excuse for such an oversight was “that the decision was made without the solicitor present.”

Gordon has served for years as the board’s chief representative in contract negotiations, and deserves credit for some significant deals. When Tkatch was hired, she agreed to a 25 percent co-pay of insurance premiums. The recent teacher contract includes gradual implementation of premium sharing, eliminates the early-retirement incentive, and gave no retroactive pay for the nearly two years the teachers worked under terms of an expired contract.

Frankly, the Auditor General’s Office was citing unusual examples of benefits common in teacher contracts that, by today’s private-sector standards, look excessive. “Early-retirement incentives” and a defined-benefits pension? Payments for not being insured by your employer? These are rarities for most of us.

Gordon agrees the board may have “made some errors in judgment,” but argues there were no good choices. He points with pride to a new contract that should make such bad options a thing of the past.

The auditor general’s report focuses on two specific incidents in one specific district, but this problem is systemic; such “excessive benefits” are built into most teacher contracts. Gordon gives credit to the Northwest Area union for “facing the financial realities of the times.”

The auditor general’s report,completed before the recent contract was approved, included this observation: “Good business practice would dictate that the district should negotiate contracts which are in the best interest of the taxpayers.”

Gordon argues that’s exactly what the district did in the latest contract. And he’s right.

Mark Guydish can be reached at 829-7161

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