San Diego Unified offered its veteran employees a golden handshake last summer: If they left the school district they could get paid one year of their salary. More than 1,000 workers took the deal.
Replacing its most expensive, experienced workers with newer ones — or not replacing them at all — was projected to save the school system more than $41 million last year and spared San Diego Unified from layoffs as it faced a $93 million deficit.
It was a gentler way of thinning its ranks than layoffs, which involuntarily jettison the least experienced, least expensive employees.
But the school district also suffered a brain drain when those veteran employees left. It lost seasoned workers such as Karen Bachofer, who oversaw school research and evaluation and had worked for San Diego Unified for nearly two dozen years.
The school district quickly rehired Bachofer to complete a project that was unfinished when she left, reviewing whether high school classes met college admissions requirements. Bachofer earned more than $10,000 to finish up the work. Meanwhile, she was still being paid for having left the school district and will ultimately be paid nearly $134,000 for having done so.
Bachofer isn’t rare: More than one out of every three employees who took the golden handshake came back and did more work. They range from school clerks and cafeteria workers to principals and department directors. Some only worked briefly; others stayed for months. It is a practice that is seldom tracked and that, if left unchecked, can chip away at the savings from the buyouts.
The school board was wary of rehiring too many workers.
Last year when the golden handshake was crafted, the board insisted on knowing who the school district planned to rehire and got a list that included Bachofer and other top employees. San Diego Unified staff told the board it planned to rehire three dozen employees, but ended up rehiring roughly 10 times as many.
And bit by bit, it added up. Since August, San Diego Unified has paid almost $2.3 million to temporarily rehire employees that it paid to leave. Those same workers are slated to earn at least $24 million for agreeing to clear out. Those costs do not exceed savings from the buyouts, but they could undercut it.
The school district says that temporarily rehiring people who took the golden handshake is no different than hiring any other hourly workers, something it regularly plans for. It spent no more money on hourly workers than it had budgeted or than it had spent in past years. Since the school district budgeted money to pay people to fill in, it argued it made no difference whether they were golden handshakers.
“In the vast majority of cases we would have used the same amount of hourly help anyway,” district officials wrote in response to questions from voiceofsandiego.org.
But critics complain that the practice defies the point of the golden handshake — to replace more experienced, more expensive workers with newer, less costly ones or to not replace them at all — and can deny opportunities to needier workers lower on the totem pole.
“It defeats the purpose to hire people back,” said school board member Shelia Jackson. “I ran into someone on the elevator who said, ‘I’m retiring, but I’ll be back next year.’ And I said, ‘No, you won’t!’”
Not every employee who took the golden handshake actually retired. Some just left the school district and started working elsewhere. Those who did retire are getting their pensions on top of their bonus.
In San Diego Unified, most of the rehired school district employees came in temporarily to finish projects, fill gaps or provide other help for a short time. None were rehired as regular employees, which would force them to relinquish their bonus.
They were paid based on their experience at the jobs they came back to fill: If a veteran custodian came back as a custodian, she would be paid the top wage. If a manager came back as a custodian and had little custodial experience, however, he would be paid less.
Hage Elementary, for instance, brought back two veteran teachers on an hourly basis to give extra attention to children who were struggling to learn English or to read. Principal Eric Takeshita said the previous principal decided to bring them back because they were great teachers who knew the kids well.
But some labor leaders complain that rehiring veteran employees who were paid to leave San Diego Unified meant that extra earnings weren’t available for younger or less experienced workers.
Martin Stech, for example, oversaw transportation scheduling and was rehired after he took the golden handshake, earning nearly $60,000 on top of his exit bonus between last August and this June.
“Why wasn’t Martin training other people?” said Leticia Munguia, a labor relations representative for the union that represents custodians, bus drivers and other blue-collar school workers. “San Diego Unified has this continual dependency on old-school-folks that aren’t walking away.”
However, the budget crunch has also stripped away levels of management — and free time — that would allow more easily for training. Stech, for instance, was the only person who understood a complex new computer program that helps the school district schedule hundreds of bus routes. Training would take at least six months, Stech said, and it would be longer unless the trainee had nothing else to do.
San Diego Unified has yet to analyze whether the predicted savings from the golden handshake panned out.
“The problem that you always have is you don’t control who leaves,” said Rick Knott, a former San Diego Unified finance director who took an earlier buyout and came back as a consultant. “Either you stop doing what those employees were doing, or you’re going to have to hire people back.”
This isn’t the first time that San Diego Unified has rehired employees it paid to leave: A voiceofsandiego.org analysis two years ago found that the school district paid more than $1.8 million over five years to high ranking employees who got an earlier golden handshake seven years ago.