Grand Forks School Board, teachers gauge impact of early retirement policy

Submitted image
Submitted image

Grand Forks School Board members discussed, but took no action, on a recommendation to eliminate the school district’s early retirement policy at the end of this school year.

At the Board’s meeting Monday, Oct. 28, the recommendation was brought forward by a policy review committee which includes School Board members Shannon Mikula and Doug Carpenter, the only voting members on the committee, and district administrators. At a committee meeting two weeks ago, Mikula and Carpenter voted in favor of discontinuing the early retirement policy at the end of this school year.

The policy allows eligible teachers to take early retirement. They may be rehired by the school district, thus drawing early retirement benefits along with a salary.

Three professional staff members who took early retirement were hired back for the 2019-20 school year, said Superintendent Terry Brenner.

“The people who’ve been hired are doing us a great service,” said Catherine Gillach, assistant superintendent of secondary education.


Board members discussed the advantages and drawbacks of the policy, heard comments from teachers and ultimately decided to ask the policy review committee to study the matter further and develop alternative options, within 30 to 45 days, for discussion by the Board at a future date.

About 10 teachers, who stepped to the podium to speak at Monday’s meeting, voiced their concerns about the early retirement option going away, noting that each teacher’s situation is different.

Some said they wanted to see statistical data on past and future early retirements and their effect on the school district’s finances.

“If you’re all for ending the policy and doing something programmatically, what would that be?” Dan Taylor asked. “Nothing will take the place of the benefit you’re talking about taking away.”

Steve Paintner said he and his wife, both teachers, “have been very loyal to our district; this feels like the rug is being pulled out.”

If the decision is made to end the early retirement option, “a lot of teachers will jump on board that year (it ends),” Paintner said. “Try to replace 50 (teachers) when you can’t replace 20.”

Another long-time teacher, Tim Tandeski, said: “You’re affecting a lot of people’s lives. (The question of) sunsetting the policy in 2023 is a big decision.”

After 2023, no teachers will be eligible for early retirement, said Tracy Abentroth, the district’s human resources manager.


Board member Shannon Mikula said the “non-economic benefits” of eliminating the policy should be considered.

In schools today, “kids are showing up with needs” that experienced teachers are better-equipped to address, she said. “How do we account for those benefits?”

The early retirement option “is an incentive,” Mikula said, “and should not be relied upon as a benefit. As a district, we can’t afford to lose our experienced teachers. It’s contrary to our interests as a district.”

“We need to figure out how to reward long-term service,” she said.

Several Board members said they did not support the recommendation to eliminate the early retirement policy by the end of this school year, as it stands, because it would be an “abrupt” change that would negatively affect teachers who may be counting on that option.

Eric Lunn, a board member since 2000, said he was in favor of “more study first, and try to determine if this is the right direction.”
Lunn said he preferred to have the policy review committee "get together and provide options of phasing out” the policy.

“You plan for retirement,” Lunn said. The “abruptness” of eliminating the early retirement option at the end of this school year “is unfair to people who are planning retirement” and “is not the correct way to treat employees.”

Board member Doug Carpenter said: “This is a totally discretionary policy. It could be unfunded at any time, it could be terminated at any time.


“We’re the only large (school) district that does this, and I think there’s a reason for that.”

The policy should be eliminated, Carpenter said, because “given the teacher shortage in North Dakota, why are we incenting teachers to retire early?”

“The policy needs to go away,” he said. “We may replace it with something else at a future time.”

The policy, which has been in effect since 1980, was initiated during a time when the district received many applications for each open teaching position, said Lunn.

That is no longer the case; the district has difficulty hiring qualified teachers for some positions, administrators say.

The early retirement option had been viewed as a means of reducing costs as it allows long-term teachers at or near the top of the salary schedule, to be replaced by new or lesser-experienced teachers who received lower salaries.

According to official minutes of the Oct. 14 policy review committee meeting, the School Board has never denied a request for early retirement.


Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
What To Read Next
Get Local