Leaving aside the harsh reality once put to music by John Mellencamp – “I fight authority; authority always wins” – Arlington School Board members could be gearing up to battle the state government’s powerful Virginia Retirement System (VRS) on a new ruling that impacts the way benefits are calculated for presidents of the Arlington Education Association.
But for now, school leaders acknowledge there’s little they can do but go along.
“There’s really not much the School Board can do,” school-system attorney John Cafferky said of the VRS change in policy, which took effect July 1.
Under that change, the leaders of educational associations in Arlington and elsewhere in the commonwealth no longer can be counted as school employees during their terms in office. Instead, they will have to be placed on professional leave for the length of their tenure, up to four years.
Previously, Arlington Education Association presidents remained as active school-system employees, but the organization reimbursed the school system for their salaries and benefits.
The change to policy is another in a series of recent efforts by VRS to cut its long-term pension obligations, Cafferky told School Board members.
A number of Virginia school systems, including neighboring Fairfax County, already have amended their policies to comply with the ruling. The Arlington board is slated to vote formally approving the policy change on Sept. 5.
Under the revision, the Arlington Education Association would be responsible for paying its president directly (rather than reimbursing the school system for salary). After they return to the classroom, AEA presidents would be able to reclaim their lost years of service in the state retirement system by purchasing service credits.
Ingrid Gant, the current AEA president, told School Board members she was concerned about the VRS ruling – “this is a serious matter for us” – but thanked School Board members for working with the organization to find the best option going forward.
Gant’s organization represents about 1,900 employees in the Arlington school system. Because Virginia local-government employees are prohibited under state law from collective bargaining or striking, the Arlington Education Association and others like it act more as professional organizations and less like labor unions.
Still, Gant suggested she believed there was an anti-employee bent to the VRS ruling.
“This is . . . union-busting,” she said.
School Board members Barbara Kanninen and Nancy Van Doren didn’t go that far, but did suggest pressure should be used on the legislature and VRS to reverse the policy change.
For now, however, the situation is what it is.
“We were told that we must do this,” Van Doren said.