CATAWISSA RR - The Southern Columbia Area School Board voted down an agreement that would have given any teacher retiring this year an extra $10,800 in health care benefits.

The 4-3 vote against the memorandum came at a special meeting Wednesday night amid debate over cost of the incentive versus how it could generate more retirees, thereby preventing furloughs and "saving programs."

The memorandum, as originally written, said if at least four professional employees choose to retire between June 12 and Aug. 29, and submit notification of such to the district no later than June 30, those and other retirees would be eligible for a $300 monthly credit toward health care under the district's plan for three years. On Wednesday, the memorandum was changed to read "at least three" employees.

It came after a retiree, Margaret Barbarito, submitted her retirement resignation April 15, to be effective June 13, and requested the incentive. When it was denied, Barbarito, on behalf of herself and other employees, filed a grievance with the district, alleging that they are entitled to the incentive.

"The benefits under section 10.2 of the CBA are currently being denied to this year's retirees by the board in violation of the contract which is still in force under status-quo," Gengler said.

In a discussion prior to voting, board member Charlie Porter noted the incentive was discussed twice before in executive session.

"Each time we discussed it, the consensus of the board was that we were not going to offer (it)," Porter said.

Porter, a member of the district's negotiating team that is trying to hammer out a new contract with teachers, said health care is off the table in contract talks. He said that while teachers continue to work under a contract that expired June 30, 2013, the board's "official position at the negotiation table" related to retirement incentives is that they're "off the table."

He expressed concern that the administration offered the incentive to the union outside of the negotiations. Gengler said it was the district's idea.

"We merely mentioned to the district that they might be able to entice additional retirees to retire if they could be made eligible for the 10.2 benefits. They came up with the (memo) and the number '4.' I wasn't aware that they had changed it to three before the meeting," Gengler said.

Also, Porter said, Andrew Ulicny and Margaret Barbarito have already retired. Ulicny, Porter said, would be eligible for $20,000 in retirement incentives and in sick day severance.

"This is well beyond what most residents in this district have access to," he said in explaining his no vote.

Director Thomas Reich argued that by rejecting the memorandum, it removed the incentive for retirement for other teachers, and, in the end, would cost the district more money and negate the chance to "save positions."

"It really saves educational programs in the district," he said. "To vote no, I can't understand it."

Board president Mike Yeager agreed.

"I understand about the extra money," he said, "but it's a chance to maintain programs."

Superintendent Paul Caputo said Thursday that, had the memorandum passed, more teachers may have taken advantage of the retirement incentive, thus allowing attrition to reduce staff rather than furloughs.

"What's overlooked is that the board turned away from what would have been significant savings from attrition had the district been able to sign two additional retirees," Gengler said Friday. "Once again, the members of the school board are playing politics with issues that could have financially benefited the district."

After the discussion, Yeager called for a roll call vote. In the end it was Porter, Gail Zambor Scherch, Charlene Cove and Tim Vought voting no, and Reich, Yeager and John Yocum voting yes.

The board's eighth member, Joe Klebon, was initially part of the meeting by phone, but then lost reception. Five yes votes were needed to pass the measure.

Following the vote, Caputo said another furlough would now be needed. He said solicitor Rich Roberts would have to draft a resolution for the July 21 meeting, and the superintendent will inform the employee.

Initially, music teachers Deborah Breech and Diane L. Wittig Musser and family and consumer science teacher Megan Habowski were designated for furlough. But in a resolution passed in May, Musser and elementary teacher Rebecca Maley were instead named as the furloughs with action deferred on a third furlough at the time.

Habowski is certified in the area of elementary education, where Maley currently serves. Therefore, Habowski will take Maley's position.

In addition, Breech expects to be certified in English prior to the completion of the school year. If that happens, she will be properly certified in an area in which a less senior employee serves, in which case the other employee could be bumped.

SCEA president Christopher Gengler said Friday that as far as Barbarito's grievance goes, the matter will now go to arbitration.

"It should be made clear that the MOU, which was authored and tendered by the district itself, would have only provided to the retirees what is in the current contract," Gengler said.