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Teachers and administrators disagree over the implications of a decision made earlier this month by the board of Teton County School District No. 1.

Overshadowed by changes to the district’s sick day buyback program and an annual audit presentation, the board’s decision to remove all benefits and retirement plans from district policies and insert them in the compensation package could have long-lasting effects. Though most facets of teacher pay are already enshrined in the compensation package, things like the sick day buyback program were formerly covered by policies.

“If it has a cost to the district,” said Superintendent Gillian Chapman, “it’s in the compensation package as opposed to in policy.”

The annual sick day buyback and retirement incentives have been on administrators’ minds the past few months as they and the board have grappled with changing the popular program. Changes approved at a Dec. 11 meeting altered the way the buyback works and rebranded it as an employee engagement bonus.

Teton County Education Association Vice President Jim Rooks told the board that teachers were happy with the buyback changes, but he cautioned against removing such incentives from policy. When the sick day and retirement programs were in policy, the board had to vote on two readings and allow at least 45 days of public comment to approve changes.

With such pieces now in the compensation package, there is no public comment period if the board wants to make changes.

“We respectfully request that [these] policies stay in policy,” Rooks told the board.

There is no national or state standard on whether all employee benefits should be in compensation packages or district policy. Park County School District No. 1 in Cody has most of its employee pay stipulations in the compensation package, but according to its website, things like its incentive programs are part of its personnel policies.

Benefits and incentives need to be in the compensation package, Chapman said, because the state Legislature sets the district’s block grant in winter, and the board approves the package in spring once it knows how much money the district has. As shown by the drawn-out discussion over the sick day policy, any program or policy that has a monetary value takes a long time to change if it has to go through the public comment period, which could cost the district money should its financial situation change rapidly.

“Our finances are dependent on what happens in the legislative session,” she said. The district needs to be nimble, she added, in case the block grant is dramatically reduced.

Though she understands teachers’ worry that their retirement benefits — which include an option to pay teachers for a career of unused sick days — are more tenuous if they aren’t enshrined in policy, she said, the compensation package is actually more stable. As opposed to policy, which could be altered in a two-month span, the compensation package changes just once a year.

Rooks’ sister, Michelle Rooks, another representative of the Teton County Education Association, came forward during public comment Dec. 11 to offer an idea she thought could alleviate teachers’ concerns. Educators’ perspectives were a large part of the process to change the sick day policies, and Rooks said having a nonvoting teacher representative who could participate in board meetings would help in similar discussions.

“We were able to gather feedback from 75 teachers and send questions to Dr. Chapman,” she told the board. “TCEA members felt heard, and that’s what we would like to do. We want to have a voice and continue to share.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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