Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008 | When Peter Iverson’s job was sliced from the payroll at San Diego Unified, he didn’t tote a sign to save his livelihood, as did the hundreds of employees who staged protests and press conferences outside the school board. He didn’t protest the elimination of his position, chief business officer, as the school district grappled with budget cuts and its new superintendent reorganized its upper ranks.

Instead, Iverson wrote a short e-mail to the school board, the superintendent and top school district officials. He had only one request: to stay employed another six months so that he would qualify for a public pension.

Already retired from the military, Iverson had worked only four and a half years in the school district, and needed to work another six months to merit a small pension from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

“Therefore, I am requesting that my position be eliminated in December [instead of] June,” Iverson wrote, noting that for nearly a year he had also shouldered the job of interim executive director of facilities management for no extra pay. Nor did the pension system credit him for the extra job, he wrote. “… Thank you for your consideration.”

Superintendent Terry Grier didn’t spare Iverson’s job. But exactly two months later, just as Iverson was to end his contract, Grier selected him for the rare position of school site operations specialist at a new middle school, where he works today.

Labor unions questioned why Iverson was afforded the spot, and decried what they said looked like a backroom deal for a senior employee while other, lower-ranking workers lost their jobs. It sounded like another controversial arrangement, made two years ago, that allowed a communications consultant to keep his pension. And within the school district, Iverson’s request was an open secret that further soured the relationship between the school district and its employee unions.

“Teachers are getting laid off, but God forbid that Pete Iverson should miss a couple months off his retirement,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. “The depravity of a system that lines the pockets of someone with such a highly paid post — it’s just appalling.”

Zombro’s sentiments were echoed in a vague comment by trustee Shelia Jackson. School board members voted to approve Iverson’s appointment in a closed meeting, a routine practice for personnel issues. But hours later, when the board reconvened in an open meeting, Jackson hinted that she disagreed with the decision to choose Iverson, who she did not name.

“It is inappropriate and it sets double standards that we’d allow someone to stay an extra six months in this district while we lay off people whose contracts end on the first of July and we don’t consider their retirement benefits or anything else,” said Jackson, in an apparent reference to Iverson.

Iverson became a school site operations specialist at the new Millennial Tech Middle School, occupying a rare position that currently exists at only eight of the 221 schools across San Diego Unified. Similar positions exist at Serra High, the Lincoln High School cluster, which includes four smaller schools, and at Horton Elementary School.

Job responsibilities for the specialists include coordinating bus transportation, planning student testing, and supervising the technology program. At San Diego Unified, such supervisors are paid on a salary scale that ranges between $72,391 and $92,269 depending on seniority; what Iverson is paid as a specialist was not immediately clear.

If Iverson stays employed at the school district through December, he will be paid a pension of at least $11,024 annually for the rest of his life.

That estimate uses the lowest $110,243 salary that Iverson might have earned as chief business officer. Iverson will receive a larger pension if he was paid any higher. The school district’s listed salary range for chief business officer is between $110,243 and $140,775. His pension could increase as well if he keeps working past December at his new job.

And if Iverson was indeed reassigned to save his pension, it would not the first time that San Diego Unified has taken lengths to secure retirement benefits for a high-ranking employee. The apparent effort to secure a small public pension for Iverson echoes San Diego Unified’s arrangement to preserve retirement benefits for Dick Van Der Laan, a communications consultant whose job responsibilities were pared down in 2006 after the school district learned that hiring him as a full-time communications director would force him to relinquish his pension.

It is unclear whether Millennial had already budgeted funds to pay Iverson before he was awarded the job. Hiring a school site operations specialist is a significant expenditure for a school, which would decide independently whether to hire a school site operations specialist and pay out of its school budget for the employee, Chief Human Resources Officer Sam Wong said.

In a budget released this June, Millennial was allocated $427,852, including slightly less than $70,000 for plant maintenance and operations — a sum that is smaller than the typical annual pay for a school site operations specialist. Wong said the position would help the school get started and temporarily relieve the principal of handling the operations side of the school.

Millennial is a new technology-themed magnet school loaded with interactive whiteboards, robotics equipment and even a three-dimensional printer. When Millennial gave parents a sneak peek of its high-tech classrooms in July, Iverson described his summer work at the site overseeing repainting, carpentry, cabinetry and overseeing the installation of wireless internet. He was enthusiastic about creating an environmental science center in the yard beyond the school by partnering with a community group.

“This is the busy season for facilities maintenance,” Iverson said at the time, gesturing to the classrooms at Millennial. “When school is out, we have to work hard to get everything done. Luckily, there are no challenges we have not been able to overcome.”

Iverson did not respond to requests Friday and Monday for an interview after voiceofsandiego.org obtained his e-mail to the school board. Millennial principal Helen Griffith was also unavailable for comment Monday. In a July interview, she noted the challenges of opening a new school — challenges she knows well from helping open the new Lincoln High School and Crawford High after it split into multiple small schools.

Taking the job meant a significant pay cut for Iverson, whose previous salary range was between $110,243 and $140,775 annually. Labor relations representative Leticia Mungia said the position would have been a welcome promotion for many of the classified workers who were laid off in June. Mungia couldn’t recall seeing the job advertised to other employees; Wong said he didn’t know whether other employees were interviewed.

“The issue for me is the opportunity that Mr. Iverson has been afforded, versus how our classified employees are treated,” Mungia said. “They’re bending over backwards to help a manager secure a retirement pension while our workers who get textbooks to kids are laid off.”

voiceofsandiego.org obtained Iverson’s e-mail from a high-ranking source in the school district after San Diego Unified said it had no records of any e-mails between Iverson and the school board for the entire first half of 2008.

Legal staff said that neither Iverson nor the school board staff could find any e-mails, and that the school district had no specific policy on retaining e-mails. The board members were not asked to search their files. Presented with the e-mail that Iverson wrote to the school board in April, legal staff said that the message hadn’t been retained in school district records.

Existing laws from the California Department of Education do not specifically mandate that school districts retain e-mails, though they must classify records to decide which must be saved, said Terry Francke, founder of the open government nonprofit Californians Aware. Some records must be saved indefinitely, such as student enrollment records or meeting minutes. New rules proposed by the Department of Education would change that, requiring school districts to retain e-mails for one year.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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