Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

School board member Miska Clay Bibbs said she requested that the administration amend its proposal with more details before the panel schedules to vote on it.

Clarification, Dec. 1, 2017: A previous version of this story stated that the school board was expected to vote on the proposal in December. A date has not been set yet, because a board member requested that the administration amend its proposal with additional details before a vote.