Non-union city workers can now get reacquainted with the three R’s (reading, writing and ’rithmetic) on the city’s dime.

“People could get an MBA, a higher management degree, or learn a foreign language,” Human Resources Director Erich Ewald said.

Starting last week, those employees, some of whom are managers, are eligible for tuition assistance of up to $2,500 a year.

Unionized employees already have tuition assistance in their contracts, though the amount differs between the six unions that represent city workers.

Out of about 720 city workers, about 170 are not union members.

Ewald said the program is a reflection of the city’s continuing effort to professionalize the city work force, but some other city leaders expressed concern that the program could be abused.

“If we pay for their education, what’s to stop them from going to Ball State to teach?” Councilman Rick Muir, D-at large, asked Ewald at last week’s City Council meeting. “If they utilize the program could they be obligated to the city for a certain length of employment?”

“I don’t know of any (tuition assistance) program that does that,” Ewald said.

Muir and Councilwoman Donna Davis, D-2nd District, voted against the ordinance establishing the program. It passed 6-2.

Ewald did acknowledge the importance of making sure taxpayer dollars are used wisely.

To that end, his department will also create a new six-person committee to oversee how the compensation is doled out, both for non-union and union workers.

Two of those positions will be filled by City Council members.

The city attorney, city controller and Ewald and another human resources employee will fill out the committee.

“This way, (the program) will be more centralized,” Ewald said. “Before, it was just done from department to department.”

Because it was run by individual departments, Ewald said it’s hard to say how many workers went back to school, but it’s safe to say there weren’t very many, he said.

The number of employees who can participate will also be limited by funding.

Employees will be reimbursed for tuition only, not books or other expenses.

“It’s not something like a new police car, where you spend the money and there’s an immediate payback in a year, year and a half,” Ewald said. “But over 20 years, it could make someone a better manager, more effective and better organized.”

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