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Seriously-Ill Teacher and Valley Tech at Odds over Retirement Benefits

A Blackstone Valley Regional Technical High School (BVT) teacher diagnosed with a terminal illness, who will be fired after a yearlong classroom absence, is arguing for long-term benefits. The school district states under contract and state law, his request cannot be met.

Dr. Philip LeMarbre, a Biology teacher at BVT for almost 10 years, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) in August 2016. According to his family, LeMarbre took sick leave to deal with his illness. He was notified by the district in December that he was running out of sick time and being 120 working days short of vested retirement, would not be able to receive full benefits or health insurance.

LeMarbre's wife Jessica said he contacted the administration about returning to finish out the school year, thus qualifying for full retirement benefits. "He was confident that he could teach and he was ready to go back," said Jessica.

LeMarbre said he was denied that chance, and his request to borrow additional sick time from a sick bank to complete his full 10-years with the district was denied by the Sick Bank Committee in a 2-2 vote.

Using social media to bring awareness to their situation, the family is asking for changes to the retirement and sick time rules. But the school administration has responded that this issue is not as simple as it is being portrayed.

A June 9 press release from the district stated, "We have reached out several times over the past few months to him through his legal counsel (to no avail) in an attempt to assist with his return." The LeMarbre family said they have not been contacted since February.

The release from BVT goes on to state, "The teachers' association and administrative team collaborated extensively over a period of months to strategize the best possible scenario for this respected teacher. Both the association and administration navigated within the rules of the contract and state laws to explore options...Our human resource office worked closely with Dr. LeMarbre to accommodate FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) leave requests, facilitate the use of all available sick time, and establish eligibility for the district's long term disability (LTD) compensation." It notes that his $2,000 life insurance policy remains in effect and the district worked to help him obtain healthcare under his wife's policy, since he did not use a COBRA plan.

Regarding full retirement, the district states that policy for the Massachusetts Teachers' Retirement System (MTRS) is determined by that group, which has confirmed "that Dr. LeMarbre is 120 working days short of pension eligibility." The district said it has tried to work with Dr. LeMarbre to create a hybrid role so he could earn his eligibility, but he has not responded. The district said it also tried to help him roll over his existing MTRS retirement contributions into another qualified account while ensuring his Social Security and disability benefits.

As to the request by LeMarbre to receive additional days from a sick bank, the district notes the intent of the sick bank is to provide extra time for a teacher to heal who will be returning to work and "it is not designed or intended to be used to inflate retirement eligibility."

As a result of those actions, LeMarbre received a letter on June 2 notifying him of his termination as a district employee. "The administration has shown him no compassion," said Jessica. "He would have done anything to go back and be with the students."

BVT also stated LeMarbre sought a $250,000 financial payment from the district, "which was clearly out of the realm of possibility." Jessica said there was an offer from the school for a $20,000 settlement so LeMarbre could stay home with his family instead of returning to work. The district concurred, "Recognizing that his family could use all the financial assistance possible, we did suggest the possibility of a more reasonable transitional compensation to supplement any LTD benefit."

"They knew he was planning to work for another four-years until he was 70," said Jessica. "$20,000 was a drop in the bucket." BVT stated, "As much as we want to be helpful, it is simply not reasonable to expect a taxpayer-funded organization to agree to financial payments of the magnitude he suggested."

"Any suggestion that the district has turned its back on a valued teacher is simply not true," read the BVT statement. It continued; the district's first responsibility is to its students, which "requires us to be careful stewards of the taxpayer-funded financial resources ... and to operate within the parameters set by state and federal law, as well as by MTRS and district policy."

The LeMarbre's family has seen an outpouring of support to its social media efforts "It has been overwhelming and very humbling what the community has done for us," said Jessica.

A GoFundMe page, https://www.gofundme.com/philiplemarbre, has collected over $38,000, and several fundraisers, including one organized by BVT students, are being held to raise money to help offset LeMarbre's extensive medical expenses. A Facebook page "Phil's Army – A Community Battling ALS," has 500 followers, with hundreds voicing support for the teacher. The family has also reached out to their local senators to intervene. "Right now, we are getting by on a wing and a prayer," said Jessica. "We are trying to look on the bright side every day."




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