Retired N.J. school chiefs return to big pay while drawing pensions

Posted: March 02, 2013

Nearly four dozen retired school superintendents in New Jersey, including 10 in three South Jersey counties, collect full pensions even while earning large paychecks as interim superintendents, according to a report released Thursday.

"They use a loophole in pension law to collectively receive more than $4 million annually from the state Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund in addition to executive pay from districts," the nonprofit New Jersey Watchdog reported.

Burlington and Camden Counties each have three interim superintendents collecting pensions and paychecks, and Gloucester County has four, according to data gathered by New Jersey Watchdog from state pension and school district records.

Among the 45 it accused of "double dipping" was Ralph Ross, retired superintendent of the Black Horse Pike Regional School District in Camden County.

During the 2011-12 school year, Ross, 72, collected a $143,000 pension from Black Horse while earning $149,000 as interim superintendent of the Deptford School District in Gloucester County.

After serving two years at Deptford - the maximum term for an interim - Ross took a job last fall as assistant superintendent of the Monroe Township schools, where he earns $136,500 while still collecting a pension.

"It's legal. I don't know why they're making a fuss," Ross said Thursday. "Interims fill positions when school boards go through a search [to fill a vacancy] and can't find a right fit."

Interims are especially needed in New Jersey, according to Ross, because Gov. Christie - a vocal critic of some superintendents' paychecks - in 2010 capped their pay at $120,000 in small districts and $177,500 in the largest.

That cap sent many superintendents looking for work in other states, Ross said, and left districts scrambling to fill vacancies. "You get someone who was making $180,000 and then he's capped at $145,000. He's going to move on."

Superintendent vacancies reached record levels during the last two years, according to Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, who said that more than 30 percent of districts saw turnovers in this school year, and 27 percent last year.

"The average length of time for a district to complete a superintendent search is six months," Belluscio said.

Several counties also have turned to retired district superintendents to serve as interims, said Ross, who said he had "no apologies for what I'm making."

"I'm as productive now as when I started," he said, adding that he and other retired administrators often cost less than permanent counterparts and do not receive medical benefits.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, told New Jersey Watchdog that while the practice of collecting a pension and paycheck simultaneously was legal, "it raises great questions that ought to be discussed."

New Jersey Watchdog, based in Red Bank and funded by the Franklin Center for Public Integrity and Government, focused much of its attention on Thomas Butler, the interim superintendent of Mendham Borough in Morris County.

Butler, it reported, has collected $1.2 million in pension checks while serving "as an interim or temporary chief" at 23 districts in 12 counties since he retired in 1995. Most of those districts were in North Jersey.

The complete report can be found at newjersey.watchdog.org.


Contact David O'Reilly

at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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