County schools' finance employees to keep benefit packages for now

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Staff
mharrell@starhq.com

Five county school finance employees' benefits and salaries will not change until the end of the 2003 calendar year. The Carter County Board of Education and Financial Management Committee reached the compromise during a joint session Tuesday afternoon.
   The details associated with bringing the employees under the county's new financial management plan were discussed at the meeting, where school board members had opportunity to voice concerns over the restructuring and possible reduction in their finance employees' benefits and salaries.
   The school system is not currently under the same benefit structure as the rest of the county offices, but County Finance Director, Jason Cody plans to make all county employees' benefit plans uniform under the new financial management plan.
   "It creates a nasty problem to have different benefit packages, because I would have county employees back there working side by side with different benefit plans," Cody said. "It also creates bad legal as well as employee issues."
   Although school board members recognized the legal and ethical implications of having county employees in the same office with differing benefit structures, they were careful to keep their tenured employees interests in the forefront.
   Carter County School Board Chairman, Richard Winters noted the fact that the employees in question have been with the school system for several years, and he wants to make sure they will be taken care of after they become county employees.
   "They are long-term employees of ours that have put in years of dedicated service, and we would like to see them taken care of as far as benefits," Winters said.
   Board members and the financial management committee agreed to proceed with moving the five employees to the Carter County Courthouse, but will allow them to stay under their current contracts until the end of the calendar year.
   Cody hopes to be able to re-bid the county's benefits at the end of the year, at which time he hopes to be able to establish a uniform benefit structure for all of the county's employees.
   The school board was also concerned about their employees' accrued vacation and sick days. Cody assured the board members that he would recognize the earned leave.
   County Schools Finance Director, Jerome Kitchens will be the first of the employees to make the move to the courthouse. He will become the new deputy director and help with the training and leadership of the new finance department. The five employees are expected to begin moving from their offices in the Carter County Administrative building, Academy St., in February.
   Their new office will be located off the executive conference room on the second floor of the courthouse. The room is already vacant. The Education Department is the last to be brought in under the County Financial Management Act of 1981, which was adopted by the County Commission last year. Cody scheduled consolidation of the Education Department last because of the larger number of employees involved, and the differences in benefit structures and computer systems. The school network operates on a different computer system than the other county finance employees.
   Cody said he plans on running both computer systems parallel until the end of the fiscal year, when it will be merged. The finance director has not decided which of the two systems he will use in the long run, but notes employees will have to be trained no matter which computer system is kept.
   "We are looking at some technological transitions as well. Either way we are going to have employees who need to be trained on one computer system or the other," Cody said.
   The Education Department will be absorbed into the county finance system one function at a time. The payroll will be phased in first followed by benefits and insurance, then purchasing, and food services will be the last to enter the system.
   The Highway Department has already been consolidated under the new financial management system. The department's finance employee, Gloria Winders has been working at the courthouse for approximately three weeks, and is adjusting to the changes. Cody stated that it could take a long time for the employees to settle in under the new management system.
   "Their job is not going to change when they come over here from day one," Cody said. "It is going to take some time."