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State school systems turn to buyouts for relief

MONTGOMERY — Faced with tough budget decisions for the coming school year, Alabama administrators are borrowing a page from the private sector and offering buyouts to teachers and support staff, a step taken rarely by most Alabama school systems.

With steep cuts expected in the 2009-2010 school year, several systems are offering or considering buyouts, with some incentive packages ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 depending on the positions involved and years of service, said Craig Pouncey, assistant finance superintendent for the Alabama Department of Education.

School boards for Tallapoosa County and Alexander City schools have passed buyout plans and similar moves are being discussed by officials for Mobile, Baldwin, Montgomery and Ozark schools.

Tallapoosa County superintendent Phillip Baker said Friday that about five people have already agreed to accept buyouts and about 18 say they are very interested. Administrators hope at least 15 people take the offers ranging from $20,000 to $25,000 for teachers and from 50 percent to 65 percent of annual salaries for support staff.

“This is what we have to do and we’re going to be in serious trouble if we don’t,” Baker said. “Hopefully it will keep some young teachers from being let go and with the economy the way it is, it’s an awful time to be without work.”

Birmingham City Schools have twice used buyouts to lure people off its payroll, first in 2003 and again in 2007.

Chief financial officer Arthur Watts said the buyouts were a “tremendous cost saver” that allowed his system to replace ready-to-retire teachers at the top of the salary scale with ones that required smaller paychecks.

But some like Dalraida Elementary School principal Elise Keith worry buyouts siphon schools’ experienced teachers and leave their staffs lopsided.

“You get what you pay for,” said Keith, who has been an educator for 38 years and an administrator for 18. “If you have an experienced person, there’s value in that. A novice would cost less but could make mistakes that cost more to pay off in the long run.”

The Montgomery principal suspects people who are already close to retirement might take the incentive but the packages wouldn’t be appealing otherwise.

“As an educator you’re not in it for money — that’s obvious,” she said.

Alabama Education Association executive secretary Paul Hubbert said he thinks systems will use buyouts sparingly, especially since there are usually 3,000 to 4,000 retirements each year among the more than 49,000 teachers and school workers.

“It doesn’t happen as frequently in the education world as it does in the private sector. Education tends to be more stable in terms of personnel,” he said.

Administrators trying to save money without a lot of layoffs are looking at everything from keeping old buses to reusing old textbooks. They’re extending hiring freezes, cutting extracurricular programs and closing schools.

Encouraging people to leave systems voluntarily through buyouts opens up slots, thus reducing the number of layoffs that need to be made. An added plus is it spares administrators some of the agony of deciding who stays and who gets let go.

“We still had to make some layoffs, but it was very minimal compared to what we would have had to do,” Watts said. “It saved up a lot more headache than if we would not have implemented that program.”