Tuesday, July 14, 2009 | Dozens of veteran workers who were paid to exit San Diego Unified two weeks ago, clearing out jobs and making way for less expensive employees, have already been rehired as hourly workers.

Though some of the returnees are merely covering the weeks until their schools actually close for vacation or signing up as substitute teachers, many of the rehires are a sign that San Diego Unified is mopping up a brain drain after buying out some of its senior employees.

And while rehired employees can still be a bargain for the school district, especially when workers only return for a few hours to help out, bringing them back can be a hidden cost of the now-familiar buyouts if not budgeted for and carefully controlled.

At least 82 out of the more than 1,000 workers who took the buyout are slated to be paid between $12 and $74 an hour for coming back to work, according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis of school documents. It is unclear exactly how many hours they will work. They include an attorney, managers and administrators, several school nurses and even typists. Many are returning to departments where staffers say their expertise is still needed or no replacement for them has been found.

“The organization has to run,” said Debi Giolzetti, an assistant in the human resources department. “That’s their purpose in coming back.”

Job referral clerk Paul Phaneuf came back immediately because nobody had been hired to take his place. Phaneuf helps teens find jobs that range from working concessions at Qualcomm Stadium to serving lattes at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. His own career at San Diego Unified got a temporary extension when he was rehired two weeks ago as an hourly worker after taking the exit bonus.

“I’m just kind of pinch-hitting to help them out for the month,” said Phaneuf, who is soon moving overseas. “I’ve sent out feelers to see if I should be training anyone, but I haven’t heard back.”

It is not readily apparent how many of the returnees are in similar situations to Phaneuf and how many are simply covering the end of the school year. Not all returnees are included on the rehiring list before the school board, and more returnees are likely to crop up soon.

Superintendent Terry Grier and the school board are reviewing another list, not yet public, of departed employees from the central office who may be brought back temporarily if Grier approves. Amy Shackelford, director of financial operations, said the list she saw included three dozen employees and would be reviewed by the board in closed session.

And the phenomenon may be larger than is now apparent: At least one returnee, former budget director Gamy Rayburn, was not listed in the school board reports. Human resources staffers said the paperwork for Rayburn had not been finished yet. A reporter learned that she was still working at the school district when another staffer recommended speaking to her for this article.

The buyout plan, commonly dubbed the golden handshake, was a key part of the strategy to balance the San Diego Unified budget without resorting to layoffs. By encouraging veteran employees to leave with a bonus, the school district hoped to clear out jobs that could then be cut less painfully. Jobs that could not be cut would be filled by less experienced, less expensive workers to save money.

Shackelford said rehiring workers who took the golden handshake would not cause budget overruns because most of the returning workers were filling jobs that were already budgeted for on a temporary basis until they could be replaced. The budget department planned for the costs based on average salaries, Shackelford said, so a veteran employee who worked part of the year and a newer, less expensive worker who took over his or her job would likely “offset each other.”

This is not the first time the phenomenon has happened: The last time that San Diego Unified offered a golden handshake in 2003, it rehired more than a dozen top administrators who took the bonus and paid them more than $1.8 million over five years for continuing to work. Those earnings came on top of their monthly bonus checks and, for some workers, their pensions as well. Critics worried that the schools had not fully accounted for those added costs of the buyout.

“I’m fearful that they didn’t ask, ‘What lessons did they learned in ’03?’ and just went ahead,” said Richard Knott, a former finance director who took the last golden handshake and later returned to consult the school district on budget issues.

The golden handshake was ultimately projected to save more than $11 million this year. Departing employees who were eligible for the bonus received as much or more than 100 percent of their annual salary, paid out over five years, a decade, or a lifetime.

They had to leave their permanent jobs at San Diego Unified, but were not required to retire. More than 1,000 workers signed up and said goodbye to their schools. The teachers union called it “a voluntary layoff.” It earned praise from the National Council on Teacher Quality as a “bold and smart move (that) makes sense for both kids and the budget” because it kept younger talent in the system.

But the strategy is not foolproof. Because the employees who exited did not perfectly match the jobs that were eliminated, the school system ended up with a surfeit of elementary school teachers with nowhere to go, some of whom are now being retrained using stimulus money to serve as special education teachers. And now San Diego Unified must monitor just how many employees are coming back and at what cost.

Knott said the key question is, “How long are they contemplating that these people will be on board?”

Another employee who took the golden handshake and continued working this year, Martin Stech, said he has been told that he will likely need to continue working through the end of September while his replacement is found and trained. Stech, a transportation scheduling supervisor, helps coordinate the vast network of buses that deliver students to school. After agreeing to leave the school district with the golden handshake, he was rehired at the beginning of July as an hourly worker.

“This was a really bad time for transportation to lose four of its six managers,” Stech said. “This is actually the time of year that we’re busiest. We’re trying to roll out a new scheduling system for field trips. There’s just no way anybody could step right into it and do that.”

But the return of Stech and other transportation managers has been galling to Leticia Munguia, a labor relations representative for the union that represents workers such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians. She questioned why the school district couldn’t recruit and hire others for the positions as soon as the managers signed up for the golden handshake.

“This is such a disgrace. What a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Munguia said. Her union insisted that no management employees come back on an hourly basis. It didn’t work.

Rehiring employees who were paid to leave is another iteration of the common practice of double dipping, in which retired employees return and earn more money on top of their pensions. Because they are already earning their pensions, government agencies do not have to pay for any new benefits for retirees, which can make hiring them a bargain. What makes the San Diego Unified case more striking is that the rehired employees were actually paid to leave before being brought back.

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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