They oversee multimillion dollar budgets. And the education of more than 9,000 Stark County school students.
On the books, they’ve retired.
But the county’s four superintendents who’ve come back to work after retirement are far from calling it quits.
PDF: View a chart of Stark County's four school superintendents who collect pension checks and paychecks
Advocates of employing local retired superintendents say their 30-plus years of experience as educators is invaluable. And the four defend their positions: A pension is something earned.
Still, these superintendents are, in all but one case, earning salaries of more than $100,000 while collecting their retirement pay. And some are receiving other perks, ranging from tax-deferred annuities to full health benefits to guaranteed raises and supplemental salaries.
An Ohio News Organization survey of the state’s “Big 8” urban school districts and their neighboring counties found more than a quarter — 27 percent — of superintendents were rehired retirees.
Of Stark County’s 17 public school districts, three have rehired retired superintendents: Jackson, Northwest and Tuslaw.
Across Ohio, educators are able to begin collecting pension benefits in their early 50s and continue collecting their regular paychecks.
Prior to 2000, rehiring retired administrators and teachers occurred less frequently. A change in Ohio law, however, shortened the period educators had to wait before returning to work and collecting pension benefits. Retired educators now can be rehired 60 days after they retire, instead of 18 months. And if they want to forgo two months of their retirement benefits, they can be re-employed almost immediately.
What once was considered a savings for districts — rehired retired employees received their medical benefits through the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) — is no longer the case. In many instances, local school districts are paying the health benefits, the STRS contributions and higher post retirement salaries for superintendents who are hired again after they’ve retired.
“My position is it is legal, and we follow the rules set by the legislature,” said Connie Ramser, a Jackson Local Schools teacher, who serves on the STRS board. “It is a school district situation, and the school board makes the call. Their compensation is up to the local school board. It’s what works the best for a district’s needs.
“Retired rehirees are not bad people.”
Before the state passed a law about three years ago stating that districts must offer retirees the same benefits afforded regular employees, STRS spent $3 million in health benefits for rehired retirees, Ramser said. Now, that cost is picked up by local school districts.
The state, which does not allow public disclosure of pension payments, is proposing increased contributions to the pension funds by taxpayers. The new pension legislation also calls for increasing the retirement age and reducing benefits for future retirees.
Page 2 of 4 - STRS is just one of the five pension systems in Ohio. From the five systems, nearly 400,000 public retirees receive benefits, and Ohioans pay more than $4 billion toward those benefits each year.
The pension analysis by Ohio newspapers found a growing number of public employees are receiving annual salaries in excess of $100,000, particularly in the Sate Teachers Retirement System. As a result, they are qualifying for pensions higher than $100,000, and with guaranteed cost of living raises their annual retirement benefit can exceed their working wage within a few years.
“I don’t think my personal investment is anyone’s business,” said Larry Morgan, the 68-year-old superintendent of the Stark County Educational Service Center and the R.G. Drage Career Technical Center, when asked about the pension he collects. “The only thing I have here that is not public record is my retirement.”
Morgan, Stark County’s longest double-dipper, brings home a salary of $149,689 — $23,504 more than he was making when he retired 10 years ago.
Educators, such as Stark County’s four rehired retired superintendents, say their hands are tied in many respects. Why? Because STRS actually penalizes educators for not cashing into the retirement system by the time they reach 35 years of service, which for many, is achieved by age 57. There are added benefits to retiring five years earlier — at 30 years of service.
According to STRS, more than 15,000 of its retired members are working in a local school district, college or university.
Sara Clark, deputy director of legal services for the Ohio School Boards Association, said she knows of no definitive study that says schools save money by hiring retired educators.
“Rehiring retirees is an option school districts can consider,” Clark said. “I think most people understand it can be a controversial decision because (rehired retirees) are taking home a paycheck while collecting a pension. Our goal is to always get the right person in the right position to educate students.”
Larry Morgan, Superintendent, Stark County Educational Service Center; R.G. Drage Career Technical Center
Morgan’s office on 38th Street NW is a busy one. Through it, millions of dollars of cooperative purchasing agreements are funneled. Curriculum services, early childhood education and services for students with disabilities for many of the county’s schools begin there. The Stark Portage Area Computer Consortium, which provides support to school districts not only in Stark, but Portage and Carroll counties, also operates from the Stark County Educational Service Center.
Page 3 of 4 - “What we do best is helping other districts,” said Morgan, who began his career teaching business and math for Plain Local Schools. He quickly moved up the ranks becoming Plain’s district treasurer, assistant superintendent and then superintendent, before becoming superintendent of county schools and of R.G. Drage in 1995.
He also chairs the Stark County Schools Council of Governments, which provides health insurance to employees of 70 school districts and maintains a cash reserve between $45 and $50 million.
Morgan is credited with, almost single-handedly, lifting Drage from financial ruin.
“R.G. Drage was near bankruptcy, without question,” said Jeff Gruber, the career center’s former treasurer who is now Canton City Schools’ treasurer. “Mr. Morgan implemented a reduction plan (that included Morgan’s annual salary being lowered to $1) that helped save the school. The passage of a levy among the six districts R.G. Drage serves was a massive undertaking. But, since that time, Drage is in one of the best financial positions of any district in the state.”
Tom Winkhart has been a long-time member of the Jackson Local Schools Board of Education and supported hiring a retired educator as superintendent.
Cheryl Haschak, Superintendent, Jackson Local Schools
An attorney, Winkhart said rehiring Cheryl Haschak, who retired as assistant superintendent in 2002, was a decision that didn’t draw much fanfare.
“I defend the decision to keep Cheryl as superintendent based upon her years of experience,” said Winkhart, noting Haschak has been with the district for 32 years, serving previously as a counselor and a principal. “The really untrue, unfair perception it creates is that we are paying her twice. She has taken a pay freeze, and, if she was working as a CEO in the private sector, she would receive at least a 3 to 4 percent raise each year.”
Hollie Reedy, the Ohio School Boards Association’s director of legal services, said because educators pay into STRS throughout their careers, they receive less money than what they would have earned had they not contributed.
“There are no double-dippers. I feel they’ve earned that benefit. They have paid toward it and are entitled to it,” Reedy said. “I do think boards should keep in mind someone is receiving retirement benefits and limit other types of compensation.”
Limiting vacation time for retirees could be one way local districts save money by hiring retirees, Reedy added. Other extras also could be cut, such as annuities, supplemental salaries and stipends.
Page 4 of 4 - But does that happen?
William Stetler, Superintendent, Northwest Local Schools
Bill Stetler, Northwest Local Schools superintendent, and Al Osler, superintendent of Tuslaw Local Schools, each receive tax-deferred annuities. Stetler’s medical insurance premiums are 98 percent paid, and he’ll receive a raise of $10,000 before his contract expires next year.
“There is no law that impedes (rehiring retirees). Is it fair to persecute a few people over and over again?” Stetler asked. “As an employer, you cannot ask about a pension. That could be considered age discrimination. You can only ask questions about qualifications for the job.
“It is something earned. I follow the rules. Are you saying you cannot use a skill set because you’ve reached a certain age?”
Al Osler, Superintendent, Tuslaw Local Schools
Tuslaw's Osler receives a stipend of $2,000 annually on top of his $105,848 salary.
When it came to deciding whether to retire and continue working, Osler called it a “no-brainer.
“It becomes a business decision, and I don’t think I’d want someone to run my schools who wouldn’t take it,” he said. “Any extra income I can get for Tuslaw, I go after it.”
The 64-year-old wonders whether his father, a retired steel mill worker, would have been considered a “double-dipper” because he received a pension and social security.
Osler answered his own question quickly and in a single word: