Desks inside a Perkins Elementary School classroom / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Their classes will not be over, but their teachers will be gone.

That may be the situation thousands of students will face after returning from winter break this year thanks to a Dec. 31 retirement incentive offered by the San Diego Unified School District. The departures will come midway through the school year and for the upper grades, weeks before their quarter ends in late January.

District officials declined to provide preliminary retirement numbers, but union representatives told Voice of San Diego 130 members of the teachers’ union submitted retirement papers by the deadline last week, plus 26 administrators (including two principals and three vice principals) and another 200 or so non-teaching employees, like office, maintenance and food workers.

The offer to senior veteran employees: $25,000 to $75,000 to retire, with the money deposited into employee health savings accounts over five years.

Details about how district officials plan to handle the vacancies and turnover remained elusive to many employees, principals and families this week, stakeholders told Voice of San Diego Wednesday.

What they decide could have an exponential impact on classrooms – which are supposed to welcome more students back to campus beginning Jan. 4 for elementary schools and Jan. 25 for middle and high schools if the district’s reopening plans being negotiated come to pass, and if public health circumstances allow.

Will the district use substitutes or new hires to finish out the quarter or year? Will they pull teachers from other schools or the same school, and shuffle their existing students into other classrooms? Declining enrollment has left some classrooms less full and able to absorb more students without exceeding class size caps, but doing the shuffle could disrupt twice the number of classrooms. It is also unclear how grading decisions will be made, and whether new teachers can remake the syllabus or change the weight given to different factors, like tests or homework.

Kisha Borden, president of the teachers’ union, said union officials tried to get the district to offer the retirement deal at the end of the school year.

“Ultimately, they were insistent that the only type of incentive they would agree to is one that was for people who retired December 31 without any flexibility,” Borden wrote in an email. “The Education Code wouldn’t allow them to use substitutes to cover a classroom without an assigned teacher, but the District has assured us that their regular hiring process will allow them to have enough applicants to fill vacancies that still exist on January 4.”

Serra High School physics teacher Ralf Uebel is taking the retirement deal after 20 years at the district but is highly concerned about the timing and lack of a transition plan thus far. He also does not see why teachers could not finish the quarter in January before leaving, and worries teachers will be seen as the bad guy leaving students in the lurch. He teaches three physics classes totaling 80 students.

“The kids definitely have the short end of the stick,” Uebel said. “I don’t have enough detail about it, but it seems like this is just about the money. … This makes us look like the jerks too, and I can see the public raising concerns. ‘You come here and leave kids out to dry for three weeks.’ My main question is why is the district even putting everyone in this situation?”

District officials did not respond to VOSD’s questions about the timing of the incentive.

Uebel said he is taking the deal because even though the amount is lower than some incentives from years past, it is tax-free and he knows he has health care premiums he can spend it on. It will also allow him to pursue other interests and jobs part-time, as a tutor, consultant or substitute.

But he’s now wracked with worry over the departure. If the plan is to use substitutes, he worries they will not be properly trained or equipped, and every day counts with this year’s modified schedule.

“Instead of 180 days’ instruction, there’s only 90 days per classroom,” he said.

He is also not sure how grading will be handed off. Even if the new teacher can see the student’s prior grade, they will likely have discretion over what percentage to allot to homework, versus quizzes and tests.

District parents Moira Allbritton and Suzy Reid said they also worry about students in the changeover and felt most parents did not realize the disruption coming. Both sit on district advisory boards and expressed concern about the lack of outreach to parents about the impacts of the deal.

“Parents don’t know there is going to be a shakeup, and we are already sitting on edge about our child’s education and what’s happening on that,” said Suzy Reid, parent of an eighth grader and tenth grader. “I don’t think the mid-year (retirements) happen this often and to have it happen this year, this adds an extra layer of confusion for the teachers and the students and it’s disruptive.” (Disclosure: Reid is an occasional contributor to Voice of San Diego.)

Reid said she is also concerned about having long-term subs who might lack the proper credentials serve as replacements, and her biggest concern “is that lack of continuity and the disruption for high school students particularly, especially those that have higher rigor classes, like AP classes or honors classes.”

For Allbritton, the mother of a Serra High student and a middle-schooler at Grant K-8, “it just seems like one more hugely disruptive thing.”

Allbritton is also frustrated by the district’s messaging.

“My concern is there is a disconnect between the experience of families in the home and this rainbows and unicorns vision put out by the central office. You want to keep morale up and you don’t want to be doom and gloom, but when there is this huge disconnect between this, it is really hard,” and saying, “‘We are doing great’ makes it harder.”

She also warns it is not just teacher departures that will rock schools.

Losing a nurse or custodian before opening the doors to more students will be awful timing, she argued, and other classified employees have “a lot of institutional knowledge … Whether transportation, food service, whether paraeducators or even the folks that do IT, nursing. You just go through the list and so many of those positions, they may not be the same as a teacher, but to someone those are critical positions and are really hard to bring in a sub.”

Amanda Hammond-Williams, principal of Alice Birney Elementary School for the last 19 years, will have to navigate those waters. She said less than 10 percent of her 45 employees are taking the offer, including teaching and non-teaching employees.

Still, “it’s going to have an impact on all of us,” Hammond-Williams said. “I’m still waiting for guidance.”

“For the new teacher coming in, I would like the opportunity for my team to be able to go through the interview process and make a decision with me rather than just have someone placed in the position,” she said. She also hopes retiring teachers can “hand-off” their class to the next person and have “some kind of community building,” but with only six weeks to go before winter break, “the clock is ticking.”

The timing is also difficult for students, although having classes online only so far this year may make it less difficult.

“Online learning is hard. Relationship-building is hard,” Hammond-Williams said. “We don’t know how the transition is going to impact a class. I wonder if there is going to be any significant impact psychologically. I hope there is an opportunity for a transition before we go out on break.”

To be eligible for the deal, teachers and most other employees had to be at least 55 years old with 15 years of service at the district. School police must be 50 years old with 15 years of service, according to district documents. The difference in the amount received – $25,000 to $75,000 – is dependent on whether the employee is eligible for Medicare. If they are, they get the lesser amount.

For some administrators, the math was more advantageous to hold out for an incentive-free retirement in June or the end of next school year, based on their pension calculation, said Donis Coronel, a district retiree and executive director of the union that represents 540 district managers, supervisors and vice principals.

San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee did not answer questions about the incentive, other than to say it did not need advance board approval because they will be “managed internally” and a third-party “service contract was not required.” The deals will go to the board for final approval in December, she said.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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