August 16, 2022

School returns bonus to medically retired teacher

In her Condition of the State address Jan. 11, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced full-time classroom teachers in Iowa would receive a retention payment for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This one-time payment of $1,000 was given to eligible full-time, in-person classroom teacher in the state as a retention payment to complete the remainder of their teaching assignment for the academic school year ending June 30.

Creston High School Spanish teacher Stacy Shepherd was battling an aggressive, rare form of cancer when her doctor recommended she look at medically retiring. “My body was just wearing out balancing work and fighting this disease,” Shepherd said. “As much as I didn’t want to leave, I decided my last day would be end of March.”

When Shepherd provided her resignation notice, Creston District bookkeeper Pat Moeller responded with information for her last paycheck - including the $1,000 retention bonus would be deducted since she did not complete the school year.

Superintendent Deron Stender said the school district was simply following the guidelines. “We all had to sign something saying if I do not finish the school year, I have to forfeit the money,” he said. “We complied with the department of education.”

This forfeiture continued to weigh on Shepherd into her retirement. “It isn’t about the money,” she said. “It’s about the principle. I would still be working if it weren’t for my illness.”

Stender said he wasn’t happy with the guidelines of the retention program. “I felt the governor should have allocated the money for all people, but that’s not our authority,” he said. “There are counselors who worked during COVID and hold a teaching license but were not deemed eligible.”

Stender declined to comment on Shepherd’s medical condition making her exempt from the requirement to finish the school year.

After talking with friends and former colleagues, Shepherd decided to reach out to the office of the governor to better understand if the money should have been rescinded. She said she wondered who decided to take the money away from her. The governor’s office told Shepherd that while they thought she should have been able to keep the bonus, they couldn’t control what the district decided to do.

A friend of Shepherd’s reviewed the frequently asked questions document from the Iowa Department of Education Guidance that states that medical leave is not one of the types of leave considered in the disqualification of the bonus.

Shepherd contacted a lawyer who told her to look into the school board to see if they had any insight. Shepherd emailed Board President Dr. Brad James June 13 asking him to call her about a concern. She emailed again several days later detailing her concerns with the district’s treatment of her.

In this letter, she addresses she was medically retired, as well as her confusion over having the $1,000 deducted from her take home pay when she originally was taxed on the $1,000 meaning she didn’t get to take the entire amount home.

In part of her letter, she stated, “You may wonder why I am looking into this now, and not before, when this was happening. Truth be told, I had barely enough energy to stay afloat those last weeks; I wanted to do my very best teaching for my students, as it was my last chance. I tried to be present as much as possible for them and I was not in an emotionally great position to be exploring this issue at the time. I do, however, as do many of my colleagues, believe that I have been wronged.”

James was confirmed to have been out of the office last week. Only a few hours after this email was sent June 16, Shepherd received a message from Moeller sending her an updated paystub with the $1,000 returned to her as of the next pay period. However, Shepherd still had no answers. She said she wanted to know who had authorized this refund, and why.

Stender said the school had been notified by the department of education that someone had pursued information on Shepherd’s payment, and they complied with the department’s recommendation.

Shaela Meister at the Iowa Department of Education said the governor’s office forwarded the facts reported by Shepherd to her department. She reached out to Stender via email on June 2.

In Meister’s explanation to Stender, she said, “While my colleagues (copied on this e-mail) understand the inclination to recover this retired teacher’s bonus because she did not complete the school year, as explained in Department guidance, this is not the type of departure that the bonus program was designed to deter. To that end, it was not contemplated in the Department’s guidance. The Department’s understanding from the Governor’s Office is that this teacher would have continued to teach but for her serious illness. A close analogy from the Department’s guidance is a teacher on long-term medical leave would still be eligible for the retention bonus. Assuming these facts to be true for the sake of discussion, and assuming no other reason to withhold this retention bonus, the Department has concluded your district may pay this teacher her retention bonus if this was a district-approved separation from employment, due to medical conditions, and the teacher was otherwise in good standing at the time of her separation from employment.”

While Shepherd said she is relieved to have the money back, she is disappointed with the way it played out. “The treatment of me was horrible,” she said.

Cheyenne Roche

CHEYENNE ROCHE

Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.