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Board member worries plan to rehire superintendent could leave Cape school district exposed
The vote was 5-0, but it was not unanimous.
When the Cape Girardeau School Board last month agreed to release superintendent Jim Welker from his contract so that he could temporarily retire, Paul Nenninger was the only member present who did not vote for the motion. He abstained.
Nenninger said he didn't want to appear as if he opposed the superintendent, who, in his nearly three years at the helm of the Cape Girardeau School District has earned high praise from the board, educators and community members. Nenninger is opposed to the idea of a move he believes could expose the district to unnecessary risk, an allowance that he says could set a dangerous personnel precedent.
"The process we're following here exposes the district to a risk we don't need to take," he said. "It creates a void."
Should Welker have a change of heart about his plans to briefly retire and then come back under a new contract, Nenninger said, it would leave the district vulnerable in trying to fill the vacancy at the worst possible time -- the beginning of the school year.
Welker insists he has no intention of leaving the district, that he plans to return following a one-month retirement, if the board will have him back.
Welker's retirement, beginning July 1, will allow him to tap into part of his state pension to meet his college debts. He will file for the retirement benefit he has accrued over his 33 years in the Missouri public education system. He would receive the benefit for July and would be able to withdraw a partial lump sum. Under pension law, he could have no contact with the district until Aug. 1, when he says he will pursue a new contract with the board.
Similar proposals outlined in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article in October have been roundly criticized by opponents who see such arrangements as an end run around a provision that was never designed as an alternative to retirement. But Welker said he isn't "double-dipping," that the plan in no way would cost taxpayers or the Public School and Education Employee Retirement Systems of Missouri any more money.
Welker has said he wants to enter into a three-year contract, identical to the contract he signed three years ago, at the same salary. He earns $135,000 a year, not including benefits, which are similar to those of his employees.
On Tuesday, Welker reiterated his desire to return to the district's executive post. While he said he respects Nenninger's opinions, Welker said he has made his intentions clear to the board.
"I would not subject myself to all of this if I did not plan to come back, or at least hope to come back to pursue employment with the district after July," he said. "I really don't believe it does expose the district unduly."
Nenninger isn't so sure.
"Lots of things happen when you retire. Jim's never retired, I've done it," Nenninger said, noting that money can alter even the best of intentions. "He could have the chance to make even more money in a different situation that may be too good to pass up."
It's a concern for a school district that has seen, as one board member put it, a revolving door of superintendents, with four coming through in the 11 years before Welker was hired in February 2008.
Welker sought advice from officials at the retirement system in a letter dated Oct. 11, a day after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article appeared.
Nenninger said he's also concerned the board's decision could set a difficult precedent, opening the door to other employees who may seek the same consideration. Some educators in the district have expressed concerns that the board is not following its own policies, which stipulate that returning retirees may not earn more than 50 percent of their prior salary for the same position. That, however, is one of the misconceptions among many, board members say, surrounding the retirement issue.
The policy, crafted from retirement system law, includes the "550 rule," the provision mandating that retired public school employees drawing their pension benefits cannot work in a state school system more than 550 hours in a year, and may not receive more than 50 percent of their previous compensation. Welker would not be a retired employee; he would be a new employee under a new contract, and his retirement benefit would be frozen upon his return to work.
Al Thompson, general counsel for Education Employee Retirement Systems of Missouri, confirmed Welker would be in compliance with the law and would not have to forfeit half his income.
While he said he understands Welker's interest in taking care of his education debts, Nenninger said it's "just hard to figure his personal issues should be paramount to our district issues of keeping continuity without any risk to the district."
Board president Stacy Kinder was not at last month's meeting releasing Welker from his contract, but she said she would have voted for the motion. She said she appreciates Nenninger's concerns but that the board isn't setting a dangerous precedent. Welker's request comes with unique circumstances, Kinder said, but that the matter boils down to trust.
"I trust him when he says he wants to come back, and I am very happy with his performance," she said. "It's a tricky deal for him, too; he's putting a lot of trust in us" that the board will offer a new contract.
As board member Phil Moore put it, pension law prohibits any "prearrangement" or promises between the board and the superintendent. It doesn't appear Welker will have any competition for the job, however.
"My understanding is we don't have to post the position," Kinder said. "If we do have to, we will."
Thompson said there is no obligation under the state retirement system to do so.
301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau MO