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Education and Taxes


School official retires one day, is rehired the next

8:17 PM EDT, May 10, 2008


This story was reported by John Hildebrand, Eden Laikin and Sandra Peddie, and written by Hildebrand and Peddie.

After retiring as an assistant school superintendent in Commack on Jan. 1 of this year, Ronald Grotsky could look forward to a generous public pension as a reward for his nearly 40 years of service -- $100,682 a year.

His retirement was remarkably short-lived.

On Jan. 2, Grotsky returned to the same job in the same district at the same salary he was making the day before, $174,900 annually. Coupled with his pension, Grotsky was now earning $275,582, paid by state and local taxpayers. The only difference was essentially a clerical one -- the district now classified him under the title "interim" assistant superintendent. He said the district did not interview any other candidates for the job before approving his interim status.

"I believe the district salary and benefits it affords me for the work is fair considering the actual work that I am doing," he said in an e-mail to a reporter.

On Thursday night at a Commack school board meeting, Grotsky announced his resignation from the district, effective June 30. He declined to answer questions from a reporter at the meeting.

A continuing Newsday examination of pension practices in school and special districts shows that at least 40 top-level school administrators on Long Island -- or one in nine -- are collecting two checks from the taxpayers, as retirees and interims. Most are working in different school districts than the ones from which they retired. Collectively, the 40 are getting paid approximately $11 million annually in salaries and pensions.

This practice, referred to by some as "double dipping," is the subject of a bill pending in the State Legislature in Albany that would require retirees to choose between a pension or a salary, if the pension is more than $83,389 and the salary exceeds $30,000. Records show that change would affect all but seven of the 40 administrators.

"I don't think there was ever any intention for the system to work this way," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), a critic of the practice who introduced the bill. State Sen. Owen Johnson (R- West Babylon) is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

Sweeney said he targeted higher pensions because, "That's where the gaming of the system occurs."

Not alone in double dipping

Grotsky's employment arrangement is not unique. Records reviewed by Newsday show that at least two other administrators retired, began collecting pensions and returned to their former jobs within days. Joan Colvin, Jericho's assistant superintendent for business, retired July 1, 2007, with a $192,400 pension, returning to the same job the next day and earning a $208,004 salary. Edward Sallie, Port Washington's assistant superintendent for human resources, retired Jan. 5 with a pension of $105,920. He returned to the same job Jan. 16, making a per diem of $769 a day. He left the post May 1.

Both Colvin's and Sallie's districts are saving money with their hirings because they don't have to pay benefits for them, officials said.

School administrators who support the practice of rehiring retirees say it brings critically needed experience to key jobs. Critics say the practice is done at the taxpayer's expense and makes a mockery of high pensions and school district salaries. Newsday's examination shows that at least some of the interims are not temporary and end up their posts for years.

Asked why Commack felt the need to bring back Grotsky back to the very same job after his retirement, Superintendent James Feltman said the school board "realized it was very difficult to get a replacement in the middle of the year" and did not interview any candidates for the post.

In order to collect a pension and a paycheck of more than $30,000, retired administrators under the age of 65 need approval from the state Department of Education before beginning an interim job. Newsday's examination shows that the department has typically granted these approvals -- called waivers -- with minimal oversight.

Criticism has increased

Complaints from civic activists and others concerned about high school taxes have mounted since 2002. That was the year the state lowered from 70 to 65 the age when retired government employees could resume work without limits on their earnings. Records show that the number of interim superintendents has risen since that change in the law. Sweeney's proposed bill would also push the age restriction back to 70.

One argument by legislators favoring the change was that it would help older retired teachers whose pensions had not kept pace with inflation seek second jobs. But state pensions and school salaries have risen sharply in recent years. Today, Long Island school superintendents are among the highest paid in the nation.

On Monday, Newsday reported that James Hunderfund, who retired as Commack's superintendent, collects the largest public pension in New York -- $316,245. Now working as the superintendent of the Malverne school district, he also earns approximately $200,000 annually on top of that. In an interview, Hunderfund said he earns the money he is paid.

Critics say some interim positions come to retirees through friendships and school connections. In 2005, the North Babylon school board hired a private consultant, retired Connetquot superintendent Joseph Laria, to help in its search for a new superintendent. Randy Bos, one of the candidates Laria found, was hired by the school board, but left within a year. The school board then gave the interim superintendency to Laria, at a $210,000 salary on top of his $105,396 pension.

Laria left North Babylon in January, after the district found a permanent replacement. Last month, he was appointed as interim superintendent in Hempstead at a salary of $265,000

Returned as troubleshooter

Some educators say retired administrators should be encouraged to come back when needed -- for example, to help financially troubled districts straighten out their books.

William Brosnan, a longtime and former Northport superintendent and former president of the state superintendents' council, is one such troubleshooter. At the request of state officials, Brosnan ran the troubled Roosevelt school system for five months last year, after a previous superintendent was ousted. Currently the executive director of the Long Island Regional School Support Center in Holbrook, he is paid $800 a day. His annual pension is $194,403, according to state records. Though under age 65, he is allowed to keep both the per diem and pension through a state waiver.

Brosnan said he's earned the money, and questions whether schools will be able to find enough administrators without bringing in retirees. Brosnan cited surveys he said show there are fewer candidates to replace retiring central office administrators. Others say there are often dozens of applications for each vacancy, which require advanced degrees and years of experience.

"People are very quick to blame the superintendent for the first thing that goes wrong," Brosnan said. "A lot of people are hesitant to put themselves and their families through that kind of experience."

Although the practice of hiring interims is designed to be temporary, some wind up as permanent or semi-permanent. Hunderfund was made permanent at Malverne after several months on the job, records show. Last Thursday, the Roslyn school board reappointed Joseph Dragone as interim business superintendent for a third year and Thomas Mohrman as the interim assistant operations superintendent for a fifth year.

Says district saved money

Colvin, of Jericho, said the district was saving thousands of dollars by hiring her. And Sallie's boss, Port Washington Superintendent Geoffrey Gordon, said the move had saved Port Washington about $40,000 in salary and pension contributions. After Newsday's call, the district dropped Sallie from the payroll altogether, saying he had reached the state's earnings limit for pensioners working without a waiver.

In an interview Saturday, Sallie, 58, denied that his January retirement was timed to game the system. He said that his annual work cycle in charge of personnel essentially ended with fall hirings and that he was simply wrapping work up subsequently. Sallie, a 36-year school veteran, added, "It was time for me to retire and I retired."

Sallie's temporary retention irritated some leaders of the Port Washington Education Assembly, a local civic group that monitors the district's finances and academic performance.

"We call this double dipping, and this goes on in all school districts -- it's not peculiar to Port Washington," said Joel Katz, the assembly's treasurer and a retired CPA. "The school district says it's not costing you anything, because Albany is paying his pension. But the point is, it's costing all the taxpayers money."

Newsday reporter Stacey Altherr contributed to this story.


Cash-sucking machines

Schools are getting record amounts of state aid, but making no effort to trim spending so taxes can fall. This system needs fixing.

May 4, 2008

Two years of record state budget increases for Long Island schools have done nothing to lower property taxes. A report issued last week shows that just five of the Island's 124 school districts will pass along their windfall to taxpayers in the form of smaller bills.

Wealthier districts can afford to scale back what seems to be an endless ability to spend, and give taxpayers a break. At the same time, poorer districts are often still struggling without enough. In spite of reform efforts by the governor's office, money continues to be distributed unfairly.

The system is clearly broken. There is no incentive at all for schools to control spending, which is up 9.8 percent this year, or $356 million. Whatever schools are given disappears into bigger budgets, and as news reports have shown, school districts cannot be trusted to spend the money most wisely. From the multimillion-dollar thefts in the Roslyn School District to the private lawyers' public pension scam to the thick layers of high-earning administrators, Long Island schools have forfeited public confidence.

The time is now for a significant break with the past. Last week, a Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness recommended, among other things, consolidating school districts, negotiating regionally with teachers' unions and sharing services such as vocational training. Now, it's up to our political leaders to make these good ideas come to pass.

Later this month, another commission - this one on property tax relief - will report in. Schools make up 61 percent of property tax bills in New York. This much is clear: Tax relief recommendations will come at a fertile time for changing course.

School districts were awarded a whopping increase in state aid this year, yet as a group, Long Island schools are still seeking 3.88 percent more in property taxes. Granted, that's lower than any increase in a decade. But it is still an increase.

Great Neck's superintendent, Ronald Friedman, says that public pressure to put a cap on property taxes motivated schools to be especially frugal.

"In the last several years, this is probably the year we've been most concerned about making sure we tighten our belts," he says.

Rising fuel costs to heat school buildings and power buses are one factor in higher school budgets. Health insurance premiums and mandated special education plans are other reasons schools say their spending is going up.Yet not everyone is just covering the basics. South Country Central School District in Suffolk County, for example, is planning to add two Advanced Placement courses and start an alternative high school program for struggling students.

These may be important additions for the South Country district, but how do we know? We have no way to compare them with the needs of the Island's poorer school districts. Inequities are obscured by opaque systems of distributing money.

State Senate Republicans allocated $236 million in "high-tax aid" this year, based in part on efforts to bolster their re-election chances. Well-off areas that vote Republican - such as Oyster Bay-East Norwich, Manhasset and Herricks - received more Senate-directed money than fairness would dictate.

Trudi Renwick, senior economist with the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute says the formula includes three tiers and at least a half-dozen variables. "To devise a formula that gives money to the highest-income districts," she says, "you really have to get convoluted."

If the $5-billion deficit in the state budget results in midyear shortfalls, poorer districts like Wyandanch, Brentwood, William Floyd and Roosevelt will be the most vulnerable.

Yes, good public schools are Long Island's treasure. But frustration with funding is at a peak, and bonanzas in state money can't last. Political leaders must make the changes that keep Long Island in the honors class.

Tax reform's your big chance, Suozzi


George J. Marlin, a resident of New Hyde Park, is a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. His latest book is "Squandered Opportunities: New York's Pataki Years."

April 15, 2008

Memo to Tom Suozzi:

Well, things sure have changed since the night you conceded the 2006 gubernatorial primary to Eliot Spitzer.

It turns out you were right about the need to reform Albany and roll back oppressive property taxes - although both of those causes have been set back by the Spitzer debacle. As the representative of the New Suburbia and head of the nation's first suburb, you understood the tax and cost pressures that residents of the state's suburbs and exurbs endure.

In appointing you to head the State's Commission on Property Tax Relief this past January, Spitzer probably figured that it was better to have you inside the tent than out, that the issue was intractable and , as Spitzer joked at the news conference appointing you, that the governor would have someone to blame when the commission issued the usual anodyne report full of obvious conclusions that no legislature would enact.

In accepting the appointment, you noted that the property tax burden "was one our residents and businesses can no longer bear."

Well, things have changed. Spitzer's resignation makes statewide office - which was a distant possibility only months ago - a real option for you in 2010. More urgently, the state and Long Island are in crisis.

State revenues are estimated to decline by $200 million weekly - yes, weekly. Nassau and Suffolk, which together with New York City have long subsidized those regions of the state west and north of Albany, are themselves in crisis and unable to subsidize anyone right now. Wall Street is in shambles. Increasing numbers of working Long Islanders are forced to visit food pantries to survive.

Given our new governor, who appears to be well-intentioned but weak and a creature of the Albany both you and Spitzer pledged to reform in 2006, you have a historic opportunity to use your commission to highlight the real issue facing Long Island and state taxpayers: high school taxes.

Look, there are other issues - Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman has done a good job in highlighting the spending abuses of special districts. Various commentators have done a public service in drawing attention to the burden of state mandates imposed by the distant and Politburo-like State Education Department.

Even the shocking pension abuses disclosed by this paper further sap public confidence in the integrity and competence of government.

But all of those issues, individually and collectively, pale in comparison to our school taxes.

You know that school taxes account for about two-thirds of our property tax bills, and, in turn, teacher salaries and benefits account for approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of the typical Long Island school district's expenditures.

You also know that if the Democrats succeed in taking control of the State Senate from the sclerotic Republicans, the effect on our Island will be disastrous - akin to cutting off the spigot of state support for Long Island school districts. The actuarial tables suggest that it won't be long before the Senate shifts. Then the executive and both houses of the Legislature will be controlled by elected officials who don't look favorably upon Island districts that are perceived as high spenders.

Finally, you also know that the effect of additional state school aid has been not to offer tax relief but rather has resulted in even higher spending.

If you want to prove you are a bold, assertive politician willing to confront difficult challenges, you should use the commission to advocate for a tax cap on school spending. Do so even if that means issuing a dissenting minority report.

The members of the commission representing public unions will squawk - perhaps even Basil Paterson, the father of our new governor, who is a commission member - but, like your political hero and fellow Long Islander Theodore Roosevelt, you must sally forth onto the field of battle.

Allow districts to increase spending at the rate of inflation but not above. Force districts to make difficult choices - like increasing class size, requiring health care contributions from teachers and other staff, and freezing teacher salaries. Roll back certain state mandates.

If you make this report the manifesto for tax reform, you will position yourself as a reformer at a time when taxes and government spending threaten to ignite a political bonfire not long seen in these parts.

George J. Marlin, a resident of New Hyde Park, is a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. His latest book is "Squandered Opportunities: New York's Pataki Years."


Most LI districts see aid hiked at least 8 percent



10:28 PM EDT, April 9, 2008




Most Long Island school districts have won state-aid increases of 8 percent or better, as the result of a record $21 billion statewide assistance package approved here Wednesday in the face of a weakening economy.


Total aid for the Island's public schools will rise next year by $236 million, or an average of 9.8 percent, with extra money thrown in for Central Islip, Hempstead, Wyandanch and other districts with high concentrations of poverty. Overall, the region will receive nearly $2.4 billion in operating aid and $2.6 billion in total aid, which includes reimbursement for school construction.


Some finance experts warn the state could find it difficult to meet its new obligations to schools, if Wall Street falters and tax receipts dwindle. But with statewide elections scheduled in November, state lawmakers opted yesterday to spend generously on education, while tightening up in other areas.


One result: Only 14 of the Island's 124 districts lose aid in the budget that won final approval yesterday, compared with more than 40 districts that would have lost money under a more conservative proposal put forward in January by then-governor Eliot Spitzer.


Most local school officials say they appreciate the help, because it will help hold down local property taxes. Some cited in particular the work of Assemb. Robert Sweeney, a Lindenhurst Democrat, and the Island's eight Republican state senators, who form a key bloc within that chamber's majority.


"When times aren't good, it takes a little courage to step up to the plate," said Jonathan Van Eyk, superintendent of Mount Sinai schools in Suffolk County. His district gets a $499,000 hike in operating aid, or an increase of 3.3 percent, compared with the 1.5 percent it would have received under Spitzer's plan.


School representatives were happier still in Nassau County, where aid hikes tended to be higher. Rockville Centre, for example, obtained an 11.3 percent increase, though officials there said the amount would end up being lower than it appeared because it included aid for preschool programs that the district does not intend to offer.


"It's still a real credit to the legislators that they were able to hold the line," said William Johson, the district's superintendent.


Some taxpayer advocates, on the other hand, expressed outrage that the school-aid package was approved only after lawmakers reached a compromise on a related teacher-tenure issue that had threatened to stall negotiations. Under that compromise, school districts will be barred for the next two years from using student test scores in deciding whether teachers should be awarded job tenure.


New York State United Teachers, a statewide union group, had sought the ban as a means of blocking New York City's plans to use standardized scores in evaluating teachers there. Legislators and teacher representatives contended that criteria for evaluations should be uniform throughout the state, and that the potential use of scores required further study.


Taxpayer groups argued, on the other hand, that lawmakers were too beholden to teacher unions, which rank among the state's biggest campaign contributors.


"That the legislature could make a deal on this issue tells all what we've known for some years -- that Albany is controlled by NYSUT," said Andrea Vecchio, an East Islip resident active in Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional taxpayer group.


Copyright 2008, Newsday Inc.


Teacher salaries considered the big expense


March 24, 2008

Targeting school administrators with $200,000-plus salaries may be a popular pursuit for politicians.

But analysts who have looked at school spending on Long Island conclude that little savings will be achieved unless elected leaders tackle larger and more politically sensitive areas of spending - especially teacher salaries.

"The big elephant in the room are the classroom teachers - that's the big bucks," said Martin Cantor, director of the Long Island Economic and Social Policy Institute at Dowling College.

Teachers' pay usually rises 6 to 6.5 percent a year, well over the inflation rate, as school districts strive to keep pace with their neighbors. Typically, teachers' salaries and benefits comprise about 56 percent of school spending.

To break this cycle, Cantor has proposed that the state negotiate and pay salaries for new teachers - an idea endorsed in modified form by Dean Skelos (R- Rockville Centre), the state Senate's deputy majority leader.

New York State United Teachers opposes that plan but says its locals help curb costs in other ways, such as paying higher percentages of health-insurance premiums.

An idea advanced by Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, would create a county team of attorneys to handle districts' legal work, including contract negotiations with teachers. Currently, districts hire their own lawyers.

That suggestion resonates with analysts who see it as another way of breaking the current cycle. "You'd stop the whipsawing from one district to another," said Lee Koppelman, director for the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University.

Please note:  The high teachers' salaries are not justified as being needed for the kids.  Rather it is in order to keep up with neighboring districts.

Long Island has many top-paid school managers


March 24, 2008

Long Island is home to one of the heaviest concentrations of highly paid school administrators in the state: more than 2,000 superintendents, deputies, associates, assistants and other managers earning more than $153,000 in average salaries and benefits.

This concentration represents 52 percent of the 4,014 highly compensated administrators in the state's nonurban school districts, even though the Island enrolls only 29 percent of students in nonurban districts. Figures are from state Education Department records listing all school administrators earning $110,000 and up in nonurban districts.

Included on the list are 11 local school superintendents whose salaries all top the $250,000 a year paid to New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who runs a system of 975,000 students.

In contrast, none of the Island's 11 highest-paid superintendents is responsible for more than 11,000 students. Klein's system is one of five urban districts excluded from the state's salary list.

Though concentrated in a small geographic area, the Island's school administrations are divided organizationally into 124 independent districts out of nearly 700 statewide - a form of suburban Balkanization that is attracting increased scrutiny from elected officials.

Three weeks ago, a Suffolk Legislature commission called for a more streamlined approach to school management to eliminate what it called "the plethora of duplicative, often costly positions."

A week later, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi advocated a countywide "office of shared school services," with an eye toward saving money and curbing property taxes through economies of scale.

Excessive, or appropriate?

In defending current administrative costs, Island school officials note that their districts rank among the highest achieving in the United States, that regional living costs are high, and that their salaries are proportionate to those of local teachers who also are among the nation's best paid.

"There's a lot of responsibility that comes with running schools," said James Parla, Island Trees superintendent and the president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, who added that his colleagues face increasing requirements in the form of state and federal testing standards. "The job's a lot more challenging now."

Even so, growing concentrations of school administrators are drawing the ire of local taxpayers, as well as their elected representatives.

"You know, it's ridiculous!" said Gary Besemer, a Brightwaters resident and retired postal worker who began checking administrative rolls in his own Bay Shore school district, after his property taxes had risen to what he considered an uncomfortable level.

State records show that Bay Shore is among the best-staffed districts in western Suffolk County in terms of the ratio of students to administrators. The 5,702-student district employs 33 highly compensated managers, including Superintendent Evelyn Blose Holman, whose listed salary of $275,500 is the Island's fifth highest.

Many administrators

Also included are an assistant to the superintendent, an executive director, two assistant superintendents, seven principals, seven assistant principals and 10 directors.

"What do all these administrators do?" Besemer asked, echoing a question often raised by other members of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional taxpayer group where he is active. "It's insanity!"

Holman did not respond to Newsday's request for comment.

A Newsday analysis finds that the Island's educational system is marred by growing administrative overhead and considerable duplication of effort.

Some examples:

Across the Island, school administrative staffs have grown steadily over the past five years in proportion to the number of students enrolled. Last school year, the latest for which data is available, the regional ratio was one administrator for every 169 students, compared with one administrator for every 189 students in 2002-03. Regional enrollments leveled off during this period.

A total of 113 officials were engaged in school business management last year on the Island, with responsibility for $8.6 billion in spending. Meanwhile, New York City's school system made do with roughly the same number of business officials - 116 - while spending $17 billion, nearly twice as much.

Contrasts were even starker in terms of the number of school officials assigned to managing state and federal financial aid. Forty-six administrators were listed as working in this field on the Island, which receives about $2.9 billion in state and federal dollars. Meanwhile, New York City assigned 37 administrators to this field, with responsibility for $8.8 billion.

In other areas of school management, too, relatively large numbers of highly paid administrators work in the Island's district offices. Island schools employ 26 percent of all deputy and associate school superintendents working statewide, and nearly 33 percent of all assistant superintendents, while enrolling only 17 percent of students. Figures are for both urban and nonurban schools.

School representatives insist, however, that they already have done much on their own to achieve economies of scale. They point to the fact that most districts obtain certain back-office services such as payroll through regional BOCES agencies, while also purchasing goods and services at low-bid prices from state-approved vendors.

Moreover, Parla and other regional school leaders have expressed their willingness to cooperate with Suozzi in looking for further ways to consolidate business operations. Many, indeed, say they see potential for substantial savings in such areas as auditing, bus transportation, legal services and high-volume printing.

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a former president of the State Council of School Superintendents, said he is now discussing the possibility of joint printing operations with five other districts and would welcome Nassau County's help on other cooperative ventures.

"If the county can do some of this, we should jump at the opportunity," he said.

Staff writer Michael R. Ebert contributed to this story.

Paying for administration

On Long Island, there are 124 school districts, requiring more superintendents (and more salaries) to oversee a student body that is smaller than that of New York City.


Long Island 465,000

New York City 970,000


New York City $250,000 (1 schools chancellor)

Long Island $24,699,978* (121 superintendents)

On LI, there are 11 school chiefs who make more than the NYC chancellor

Warren A. Meierdiercks



Henry L. Grishman



James A. Feltman



Les M. Omotani



Sheldon Karnilow

Half Hollow Hills


Marc F. Bernstein

Valley Stream Central

High School


Evelyn Blose Holman

Bay Shore


William H. Johnson

Rockville Centre


Herman A. Sirois



Carole G. Hankin



Ronald L. Friedman

Great Neck


Administrators with salaries over $110,000

Total, New York State 4,014

Long Island 51.8%

Rest of the state 48.2%






Super pay

High administrative salaries are latest example of unsustainable school costs

March 25, 2008

Something is definitely out of whack when 11 school superintendents on Long Island are paid more than the $250,000-a-year salary of the chancellor of the million-student New York City school system.

Fat pay envelopes for layer upon layer of school administrators may not top the list of reasons for the Island's high property taxes. But boutique districts - none of the 11 highest paid superintendents is responsible for more than 11,000 students - thick bureaucracies and runaway salaries are examples of the unsustainable indulgence that is business as usual for Long Island's schools. Is that the price for local control? It doesn't have to be.

School costs have to be curbed if homeowners are ever going to get relief from crushing property taxes. It's not enough to demand more school aid from Albany. That's just shifting the burden from one tax base to another. In the end, taxpayers still pay.

Besides, convincing Albany that Long Island schools need more money gets difficult when its 124 districts pay more than 2,000 superintendents, deputies, associates, assistants and other managers more than $153,000 a year in salary and benefits.

Long Island isn't an unbroken sprawl of affluence. It has some hard-pressed school districts that need the state's help. Unfortunately, it may be hard for legislators from other parts of the state to see that need through the crowd feeding at the public trough.


SchoolWatch - It's time!