The Keene School District is appealing an arbitration decision that found the district violated its collective-bargaining agreement with the teachers union by delaying early-retirement payments, according to a petition filed in Cheshire County Superior Court.

The Keene Education Association maintains that the district intentionally delays early-retirement payments to save money and that this practice decreases teachers’ pensions. The district denies those allegations.

The dispute dates back to last April, when two retiring teachers, Randall Burns and R. Scott Hyde, filed a grievance with the district. That grievance went to arbitration in February, and in April the arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor, according to the petition the district filed in court May 14.

“The District is exercising its contractual right to seek judicial review of the arbitrator’s decision in Superior Court,” Peter C. Phillips, the Salem-based attorney representing the district, wrote in a statement to The Sentinel.

“... The District denies any wrongdoing, as it has faithfully followed a long standing and established process in the administration of this benefit for its retiring teachers,” Phillips continued. “These proceedings in no way alter the profound gratitude and admiration the District has for the retirees and their service to the Keene School District.”

Neither the district nor the Keene Education Association have released a copy of the arbitrator’s decision. William Gillard, the union’s president, said such documents are confidential personnel matters. N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which includes the Keene district, has not yet responded to a right-to-know request filed Tuesday seeking a copy of the decision.

The Keene Education Association also filed a complaint to the N.H. Public Employee Labor Relations Board on behalf of Burns and Hyde, who’d taught at the Cheshire Career Center and Keene High School, respectively. That complaint, initially filed last August, is on hold, pending the outcome of the district’s appeal.

In the complaint, the union said the district delayed early-retirement stipend payments to Burns and Hyde, which reduced their lifetime pension calculations. The union also asserts that this practice extends beyond these two teachers and could affect more than 50 retired employees.

The collective-bargaining agreement between the union and the Keene School District provides for stipends to teachers who meet the criteria to retire early.

The N.H. Retirement System calculates teachers’ pensions by averaging their three highest earning years. After an employee’s last year of work, any final bonuses or early-retirement incentives must be paid within 120 days to be added to that year’s salary and factored into pension calculations.

Burns and Hyde were approved for early retirement in December 2018, with their retirements effective July 1, 2019. But they received letters from the district notifying them that they would begin receiving their early-retirement stipends in November, which is outside the 120-day window for those payments to count toward their pensions.

Burns previously told The Sentinel that he might have received between $100 and $300 more in lifetime pension payments if the district had paid his stipend within 120 days of his retirement.

The union and the district asked an arbitrator to determine whether the district violated the collective-bargaining agreement by starting these payments in November. The arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor and directed Burns and Hyde to contact the retirement system to recalculate their pensions, according to the district’s petition.

The district argues the arbitrator ruled incorrectly and issued a decision beyond the scope of the arbitration request from the district and the union. The district is asking Judge David Ruoff to reverse the arbitrator’s decision.

Gillard, the union president, said he would prefer to see matters like this settled directly between the union and the district, and not in court.

“When they make these appeals, the people who pay the most are the taxpayers, because the taxpayers are paying the lawyers to defend these appeals,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to transition to remote learning in mid-March, though, Gillard said the relationship between the union and district has undergone an “astronomical shift” from adversarial to much more collaborative. Hopefully, he added, this change will lead to future disputes between the two entities being resolved directly.

“This shift may result in us working together to resolve some of these differences outside of the court system in the future,” said Gillard, who is a Keene High School math teacher. “That would be the union’s hope. And I think that would cost the taxpayers a lot less money.”

No hearings have been scheduled yet on the case in Cheshire County Superior Court, according to online court records.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com.