Retired school teachers and administrators are cashing in on a special exemption that allows them to return to work at a school for full-time pay while continuing to collect their public pension.
"What you have here is people taking advantage of a flaw or a loop hole in the system which allows them to continue doing the type of work they have been doing their entire career and collect retirement, which doesn’t make sense to most folks," said Steve Poftak with the Pioneer Institute.
But it does make sense to the state, which can waive the cap on what a public retiree can normally earn in public sector work. The Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education grants "critical need waiver" when they agree with school districts that a retiree is the only person they can find to fill a position.
A FOX Undercover investigation has found those waivers can be highly lucrative, especially for retirees like superintendents whose high salaries led to six-figure pensions. Being rehired at another six-figure job like interim superintendents can give these working retirees taxpayer-based incomes of nearly $300,000 in some cases.
"When you have superintendents retiring who are making anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000, you are talking much larger pensions. Therefore when they get hired back, if there’s a critical shortage declared, they are making a tremendous amount of money," Poftak said.
That's not a bad description for what William Ryan is making. He retired as superintendent of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District with a $119,847 annual pension. Now he has a contract for $166,000 working as interim superintendent of Billerica. If he stays as superintendent for the whole year, his total compensation would be $285,847. He said the district was stuck without a superintendent after another candidate backed out at the last minute.
"Why wouldn’t a superintendent want to do that?" asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.
"I don't know. We've created an incentive that goes in the wrong direction," Poftak replied.
The incentive for double-dippers came, according to Poftak, nearly 10 years ago when the state paid educators to retire early. It was supposed to help school districts save money by getting higher-paid senior staff off their payrolls. But Poftak said it backfired, shifting costs to the already overburdened state pension system and led to personnel shortages.
These shortages are being filled in part by hiring back retirees.
"We've created a problem and we’ve created a mechanism to deal with it and it’s clearly costing millions of dollars to the taxpayer," Poftak said.
In the past three years the state has granted 142 critical need waivers for everyone from superintendents to librarians.
Herbert Levine got one. He can earn up to $144,000 as Peabody’s interim superintendent. He retired from the Salem school district with a $117,092, making his take-home compensation this year up to $261,092.
Harvard interim superintendent Joseph Connelly also got a waiver. His contract will pay him $143,000, which on top of his $117,126 pension totals $260,126. He said the district only wanted to hire a superintendent for one year, making it difficult to hire someone who wasn’t retired, because the district is considering changes to its structure.
State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester defends the program.
"I don't think it’s a waste of money. I think it's a need. It's used sparingly," Chester said. "There are a few positions in the state where we periodically experience shortages… these are areas where it’s not unusual to have a need for teachers or administrators and the pool of candidates is just not available."
Chester says the state works hard to make sure the school district really needs to hire a retiree.
"I don't have any evidence that people are actually gaming this or taking advantage of this," Chester said. "We require the school system to document to us that they’ve done the looking, they’ve done the search, they’ve looked at the candidates that are out there."
Chester says he sees no end in sight for these critical need waivers. On that point, even Poftak agrees.
"It's essentially a problem of our own creation. We gave people these incentives. They took advantage of those incentives and now we find that we have a shortage," Poftak said.