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3,875 school pensioners back on payroll

by Michael R. Wickline | August 20, 2011 at 5:16 a.m.

— Nearly 4,000 members of the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System have retired, then returned to work at a system employer to draw both a pension check and a paycheck with taxpayers footing the bills.

That’s lots more than the number of employees drawing two checks in state government apart from the education field.

This two-checks arrangement is called “double dipping” by some of its critics, who say it’s inappropriate and an abuse of the taxpayers, though it’s allowed by law and has remained so through several successive Legislatures.

See the list of all 520 rehired workers

According to the system, which covers teachers and other school district employees, 3,875 of its members were retired and worked at a system employer in the year that ended June 30.

They included 133 in the Pulaski County district, 126in the Little Rock district, 100 in the Fort Smith district and smaller numbers in other districts, according to the system’s data.

The system paid the 3,875 gross retirement benefits totaling $77 million a year ($66 million net after taxes), or an average of nearly $20,000. Salaries they earn total about$90 million a year, an average of more than $23,000, according to the system.

The data were provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the state Freedom of Information Act.

The teacher system’s “double-dipper” total far surpasses the 521 employees of the state(193 in the Department of Human Services) currently retired but getting a paycheck, according to state Department of Finance and Administration figures. Those figures reflect only the state agencies that are on the Arkansas Administrative Statewide Information System, which doesn’t include the higher education institutions.

Some of the 521 are top officials getting salaries of more than $100,000 a year and getting pension checks, too.

It was not clear whether teacher system retired-butrehired members were paid such large amounts. Some information in the teacher retirement system cannot legally be released, according to George Hopkins, executive director for the system.

Also, only a few employers were able to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests Friday by the Democrat-Gazette for salary information about retired but re-employed workers.

The average-salary figure of the teacher-system retirees suggests that many of them work full time, although others may work part time in positions such as substitute teaching, Hopkins said.

The system is unable to determine whether a retiree returned to his old position or the employment circumstances, he said.

However, the teacher system does track whether a retiree was off the job the amount of time required by law and it is able to identify the employer of each retiree who returns to work, though it has no information on the position, he said.

Under a 2009 law, the system was authorized to collect a contribution equivalent to 14 percent of an employee’s salary from his employer for most system-retired members who return to work for a system employer, so it has names and salaries, Hopkins said.

But the system isn’t allowed to release the data, he said, because the information was exempted from the Freedom of Information Act by the Legislature in 2001.

The exemption, Arkansas Code Annotated 24-4-1003, says “all records kept by an Arkansas public retirement system, whether required to be kept by law or board policy, shall be open to public inspection ... except that individual member’s records which are kept for the purpose of compiling information for the member’s retirement or social security records shall not be open to the public.”

That provision has been cited by retirement system officials through the years when people sought to find out the specific amount of pension paid to former public employees, including some who returned to the public payrolls.

Some people in the education establishment have resisted greater disclosure of the public pension system’s data, as well as resisting greater restrictions on the retire-andreturn-to-work practice.

House Bill 1040 by Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, which would have largely done away with the practice by most members of the state retirement systems died in the Legislature this year in the face of opposition from teachers and local government employees.

Legislators who have been leading figures in the field of state retirement issues were generally not ready Friday to call for banning double dipping in the education field, but some were willing to consider greater disclosures.

Rep. Allen Kerr, R-Little Rock, who co-sponsored English’s bill, said it would be more difficult to ban double dipping for teachers than for state employees because it’s argued that teachers have a unique role and it’s difficult to find talent. If a teacher gets sick or takes a temporary leave, a substitute must be hired, he said.

But, he said, coaches and superintendents have abused the system.

“There is a difference between needing to teach a class and someone who is abusing the system,” said Kerr. “There are a lot of people out there who absolutely hate the fact that employees are doing this.”

Act 565 of 2011, sponsored by Kerr, defines “terminate” as the term applies to eligibility for retirement under the teacher system as “the member’s employment has ended at all system-covered employers,” and “a complete severance of the employer-employee relationship has occurred at all system covered employers.”

State Sen. Johnny Key, RMountain Home, co-chairman of the Legislature’s retirement committee, said teachers who retire and then return to work usually return in a different position.

“They may come back as a literacy coach or something like that,” he said. “I’m not ready to say we should ban double dipping for teachers because it is apples and oranges” tocompare retired teachers who return to work and retired state employees who do so.

Key’s mother retired as a teacher in the Farmington district at the end of last school year, he said, and probably will look for “another opportunity” to work part time.

He said he doesn’t believe that the public and the Legislature would support banning retired teachers from working as substitutes.

“We have enough trouble getting substitutes that know what they are doing,” Key said.

Key said an argument could be made that public pensions should be public information just like public employees’ salary amounts.

But, he added, “I would have to give that some thought. I am not sure.”

Kerr said he believes that the pensions paid by publicly funded systems should be public.

“That’s another one of the things that we plan to explore,” he said. “If you are getting paid a retirement or a regular check through tax funds, you ought to be upfront about that, and it ought to be public record.

“I was never so shocked [as] when I tried to find it, and they [the teacher and public employee pension systems] told me I had no right to it on an individual basis,” Kerr said. “That’s a closely guarded secret.”

State Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, D-Crossett, a former chairman of the Legislature’s retirement committee, said, “To me it is public dollars and it ought to be public record. I don’t have a problem with it.”

He is a retired teacher.

Changing the law to make pension amounts public “would be worthy of conversation,” Jeffress said.

Richard Abernathy, chairman of the teacher retirement system’s board of trustees, said he didn’t see a need to allow the disclosure of pension amounts.

“I think that’s a little bit more confidential than what should be released,” he said. But, he said, “I don’t have a lot of heartburn over that either way.”

Hopkins said several reasons are commonly given to justify keeping a system member’s retirement information from the public.

“An important issue relates to protecting members from fraud, abuse and pressure from unscrupulous people,” he said.

If a member has been in the deferred retirement plan he may have a substantial balance that “‘investment experts, family members and friends:” may pressure the member to make terrible choices that “essentially put these balances at risk,” Hopkins said.

He said most Arkansans like to have some privacy about their finances.

“The public’s right to know is always balanced with personal privacy,” said Hopkins, alawyer. “People entering public employment know that at the front end. A lot about a public employee is open for full viewing by anyone.”

But if a person who is considering a career in public education knows that “all financial decisions that are made, including all retirement benefits payable, are available for every citizen, whether friend or foe to obtain and distribute, then that could have [a] great chilling impact on recruiting quality people to dedicate their lives to a career in Arkansas public education,” he said. “Several may refuse that path if their retirement benefits are an open book.”

At least 21 states consider financial benefits for retirees to be public records. At least 26 states prohibit the release of such information, according to The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 08/20/2011

Print Headline: 3,875 school pensioners back on payroll

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