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Votes

Retire and Rehire?

Thoreau parents lobby to retain the middle school's principal.

When Jo Gingras' family moved to Vienna, she asked Bruce Oliver, the principal at Thoreau Middle School, to place her son in some classes with the only other student that his son knew at that time.

Oliver respected her request and took care of the matter. That personal touch is one of the reasons why Gingras has lobbied for Oliver to remain at middle school in Vienna.

"I just think he's fantastic," Gingras said of Oliver. "He's very hands-on."

Gingras is one of several Thoreau parents who, through letters, e-mails and phone calls, are lobbying for the retention of Oliver at Thoreau for next year and thereafter.

Because of Internal Revenue Service regulations, Oliver, who has been retired from Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) for three years, must step down as Thoreau's principal this summer.

The regulation, which is upheld in the Virginia Code, pertains to the re-employment of retiree pension recipients. If the recipient has participated in one of the school system's three plans — the Virginia Retirement System (VRS), the Educational Employees' Supplementary Retirement System (ERFC) or the Fairfax County Employees' Retirement System (FCERS) — he must either suspend retirement benefits or sever employment with the school system for a year before the school system can rehire him.

The regulations are meant to protect the tax status of the three retirement systems, according to the FCPS Department of Human Resources.

"I think that Bruce Oliver is so loved by the parents and students at his school that they organized to take action," said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-34th), who, along with Del. Jim Dillard (R-41st) and Del. Steve Shannon (D-35th), has received correspondence from parents on the issue.

Devolites explained that the IRS is concerned that if a pension recipient retires but is rehired as a contract worker, like Oliver, that recipient is no longer paying retirement taxes on the new income.

She added that if the employer continues the employment of the pension recipient, the employer may face hefty fines from the IRS.

Besides Oliver, the regulation has affected employees from 25 other states who are also waiting on an IRS ruling on the regulation. Devolites said she had contacted Rep. Tom Davis (R-11th) so he could facilitate matters with the IRS.

"Until the IRS makes a ruling, the attorneys for the school system have a concern," Devolites said.

ALTHOUGH the parents at Thoreau see Oliver's retirement as beyond their immediate reach, that hasn't prevented them from contacting their state representatives and members of the Fairfax County School Board.

"I think the principal makes such a big difference in the tone and atmosphere of the school," said Peggi Johnson, Thoreau's PTSA president. Oliver, Johnson said, "is so outstanding at what he does ... that the parent community feels that we should do everything we can do to keep this person."

Johnson cited Oliver's continuous presence in the hallways, as well as his rapport with his staff and the local community and business partners, as Oliver's strengths.

"He's still very innovative, he's always learning. For the bottom line, he cares about kids," Johnson said. "When you've got somebody who really cares, parents are just blown away by how he cares about our kids."

Another parent, Robin Hayutin, was concerned by the changes in staffing that could result if Oliver retires from Thoreau next year.

"The staff there is fantastic, and I believe a lot of it comes from the top," Hayutin said. "We've seen that when there's a change in principal, there seems to be a turnover in staff."

Gingras feels that with the upcoming departure of county school superintendent Daniel A. Domenech and the autumn death of chief academic officer Nancy Sprague, the school system shouldn't force the departure of a veteran principal.

"It just seems to me that the boat is already kind of rocking," Gingras said. "Why would you want to take a school like Thoreau and shake it up?"

WHILE OLIVER appreciated the parents' efforts, he was concerned that the issue might make the community divisive toward any incoming principal. Oliver said his retirement has already been officially announced and that the school system has begun the process of finding a replacement.

"I do appreciate the fact that the parents have been highly supportive," Oliver said.

"I would prefer at this point to let this process quietly take effect," Oliver continued.

Devolites said that if the IRS makes a timely ruling within the next several months, Oliver could remain as Thoreau's principal through a yearly renewable contract with the county, should he wish to continue.

That would be good news for many of Thoreau's parents, who have been trying since October to keep Oliver in school.

"Part of my thing is, if it isn't broke, why fix it?" Johnson said.