Taxpayers in New Jersey are paying dozens of school superintendents twice – a paycheck and a pension – and it’s allowed, the I-Team has learned.
It’s referred to as double dipping, a practice that in other public professions has drawn the eye of critics who consider it unfair and a poor use of taxpayer dollars.
In New Jersey, it is interim school superintendents who have the opportunity to double dip.
One example is Mendham Borough’s interim school superintendent, Thomas Butler. He officially retired 19 years ago from Chester Township Schools. Since then he has worked as an interim in 23 separate districts while simultaneously collecting more than $1 million in pension checks.
As Mendham’s chief education officer, he earns a salary of $135,000. His annual pension payout is $77,340.
Butler told the I-Team that he believes he is saving taxpayers’ money because school districts don’t have to pay health benefits for an interim superintendent.
“It’s a financial benefit to the board,” said Butler. ‘By bringing an interim in, the board is actually saving money. I’m in this just to help the district out and then move out.”
The interim superintendent of the Mahwah School District, Karen Lake, has a $167,000 contract on top of her $131,000 annual pension.
“I think it’s the way the system is set up,” said Lake. “Greater people than me made that decision, I took advantage of it.”
Lake retired in 2007 and took four years off before accepting the interim job in Mahwah. She will leave in June.
Asked if it’s fair to be collecting a state pension and a taxpayer-funded salary simultaneously, Lake told the I-Team: “I think it is. I’m working.”
Interims are often used while a school board searches for a permanent replacement.
“In the current school year, 45 interim superintendents are double dippers and those superintendents are collecting more than $4 million a year from pensions,” said Mark Lagerkvist, from the investigative nonprofit NJ Watchdog, which partnered with the I-Team on this report.
Along with the pension checks, each of the interim superintendents earns a salary, most of them six figures. As retirees, the interims do not contribute to the state’s pension system, which is facing a nearly $42 billion shortfall.
“We see superintendents bounce around from district to district to district, retired superintendents working interim jobs, and they make a great second career while they’re collecting a pension,” said Lagerkvist.
Under New Jersey law, interim superintendents can only work in a district for two years, and there is nothing to prevent that district from hiring another interim instead of a permanent replacement.
But the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, Dr. Richard Bozza, believes there is another impetus for the shuffling of interims – the salary cap.
“We’ve got a policy that really discourages people from taking jobs as superintendent of schools,” said Bozza. “They come in and they find that others around them have greater compensation for less responsibility.”
To help control costs, Gov. Chris Christie capped pay for school superintendents; those in the largest districts can get a top salary of $177,500 and those in the smallest can earn $120,000.
“What school boards are finding is that it’s not as easy as they think it will be to find superintendents to come in and take their particular position,” said Bozza.
But, he said, it’s important for school boards to make hiring a superintendent a priority, and not to keep interims in those posts.
“I’m of the belief that it's a valuable service, but it should be for a very specified period of time,” said Bozza. “Boards of education have to do their job. They’ve got to get their new leader on board and move forward.”