Dipping at the salary well - again

Posted: September 15, 2008

Norton "Nort" Seaman says he thought his retirement in 1998 as principal of Harriton High School in the Lower Merion School District was the end of an education career of more than 30 years.

It wasn't.

Since the fall of 2002, Seaman, now 70, has returned to work as an interim principal or assistant principal seven times in three school districts, twice for a whole school year, while collecting his $57,136 annual state pension.

To hire him, districts had to declare an emergency: that not filling the vacancies would have caused "a serious impairment of service to the public."

In his latest stint at Lower Merion High School, Seaman was paid $170,800 for a year, and the district ended up promoting an assistant principal to the job. Having Seaman there as a mentor prepared the successor, district spokesman Douglas Young said. In all, Seaman has been paid more than $350,000, while collecting a pension from the state Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS).

No one knows how many Pennsylvania districts employ retirees during an emergency or a shortage of qualified personnel. PSERS investigates only cases brought to its attention, such as those of two area superintendents and several high-level Philadelphia administrators, as The Inquirer reported in 2007.

Seaman's case and that of at least two others show that principals, too, benefit by retiring with state pensions and then returning to fill in as temporary principals.

Starting in February, a retired Conestoga High School principal will return for a semester as an assistant principal to help a new principal. And this summer, the newly retired director of high schools in West Chester became acting principal at Henderson High School for about a month while the school awaited a new principal.

Critics say school districts often misuse the law, putting a strain on the pension system. Districts like to hire retirees because they don't have to pay into the pension system for them and often don't pay other benefits, either.

"It clearly appears to be double-dipping," said State Rep. Karen Beyer (R., Lehigh), who introduced legislation in May to limit the practice. "It puts a stress on the pension plan. These are taxpayer dollars."

Seaman said, "I never sought out work. People sought me out instead. . . . I got the call because people knew I was retired and was available."

He added, "I found it was really enjoyable. I hate the paperwork, I hate the meetings, but I like being around the kids."

Jeffrey Clay, executive director of PSERS, said his agency usually did not verify district declarations of emergencies or candidate shortages. The potential cost to the retirement system depends on each candidate's situation, he said.

Beyer said it "seems unfair to me" for taxpayers to pay twice for a school employee's services. In most such situations, she said, districts should leave short-term vacancies unfilled and have another administrator assume the duties temporarily.

Working while collecting a pension, Beyer said, "seems to be regarded by many administrators as part of the perks of having these positions. They already have enough perks. They don't need another one. . . . If you want to continue to work, you should not retire."

Beyer introduced House Bill 2520 in response to a 2007 Inquirer article about several superintendents and other high-ranking school administrators who retired and then were rehired to the same or a very similar positions while collecting a pension.

PSERS ruled that two of them - John Baillie, former executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, and Barbara Burke-Stevenson, former superintendent for New Hope-Solebury School District - had violated the regulations and had to return tens of thousands of dollars in pension payments. Baillie and Burke-Stevenson have appealed, saying their employment was proper under the law; a final decision is months away.

The cases involving the Philadelphia administrators are still under investigation.

Beyer's legislation would cap the pay of retirees who return to work at the last salary they got before retiring, plus 25 percent and minus their pension payment. The bill, awaiting action by the House Education Committee, also would require districts to document their attempts to hire nonretirees, giving the Education Department the final say. The current law doesn't define an emergency; Beyer's legislation tells the department to set regulations.

"All we are asking school districts to do is to use due diligence in attempting to find new hires" before turning to retirees, Beyer said.

State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Education Committee, said he would support changes "if this is a serious problem and a great number of people are abusing the system here, but I would have to be convinced of that."

He added, "We tend to say, 'It's wonderful to be a teacher, but we don't pay you very much - and, by the way, if you return to work after retiring we will penalize you even more.' That's not good for our education system."

Defenders of the current law say that finding short-term replacements is difficult, and that retired principals are highly qualified to step in.

New restrictions would likely make the task even harder, said lawyer Jeffrey Sultanik, a school-law specialist who is appealing PSERS' ruling that Burke-Stevenson must return $115,738 in pension payments.

State policies have encouraged early retirements and have made it easier for retirees to return to schools.

Clay, the PSERS executive director, said the legislature had steadily increased the days retirees are allowed to work during an emergency and collect a pension, from 60 when the practice started in 1975 to an entire school year since 2004.

In Pennsylvania, school administrators and teachers can collect full pensions at age 60 if they have 30 years of service. They can retire with full benefits at any age with 35 years of service. The state also periodically offers "30 and out" retirement incentives that waive the age requirement; the last was in 1998 and 1999.

Seaman's post-retirement work history provides an insight into how the practice works.

He was hired in the fall of 2002 for a few months as interim assistant principal at Henderson High School in West Chester while a new assistant was being hired. That same school year, he worked as an interim assistant principal at Stetson Middle School in West Chester. The next fall, Seaman returned as a temporary assistant principal at West Chester East High School. District records are incomplete, but show Seaman was paid at least $31,350 for his work in the district.

In 2004-05, Seaman was paid $121,650 for a full year as acting principal at Harriton High.

The next winter, he was back in Lower Merion as a temporary replacement for the principal at Gladwyne Elementary School, who left suddenly. Seaman was paid $17,050.

In the winter of 2006, Seaman was interim principal for several months at Downingtown West High School after the principal was promoted. He was paid $26,750.

Young, the Lower Merion district spokesman, said Seaman had been hired each time because a principal left on short notice and qualified candidates were not readily available. "We were aggressively trying to find a qualified candidate to take the position in each instance," Young said. "We don't want to sacrifice the education of the students because of inappropriate staffing."

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-627-2649 or dhardy@phillynews.com.

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