Lewiston superintendent says 'no' to double dipping

LEWISTON — Bill Webster, the usually mild-mannered superintendent of schools, has drawn a line in the sand: Staffers who retire and get pensions will not be rehired for the same jobs and salaries.

“Not on my watch,” Webster said. “We can't spend ourselves to the poorhouse."

If you want to stay in your job, don't retire, he said. “If you want to retire and work someplace else, fine.”

He said he didn't understand how any organization could double-pay employees.

“School employees argue, 'That's my money,'" Webster said. "Well, it really isn't their money. It's the public's money.” Taxpayers fund a percentage of public employees' pensions, and in Maine, the pension fund has been chronically underfunded.

Webster's position is unusual for a school superintendent.

At a Maine superintendents' meeting in January 2011, Webster voiced his opposition to double-dipping. “I was one of the few, if not the only, superintendent who had this perspective,” he said.

His predecessor, Leon Levesque, retired in 2006, began getting a pension, was rehired as superintendent by the Lewiston School Committee and continued to get a salary. In 2009, his annual salary was $113,300 and his retirement income was more than $100,000 a year. Based on U.S. Social Security Administration life expectancies, Levesque's projected pension income could be more than $2 million over his lifetime, depending on cost-of-living increases.

The practice is common among state employees.

A Maine State Retirement System list provided by request under Maine's Freedom of Access Act shows more than 1,256 people in 2011 were retired with pensions and also drawing paychecks from the state or a school district. The highest-paid on the list were school administrators:

* Mt. Blue School District Superintendent Michael Cormier retired in 2009, started drawing a pension and was rehired as superintendent. In 2011, his yearly pension was $56,400; his annual salary, $99,332.

* Jay School Department Superintendent Robert Wall retired in 2010, started drawing a pension and was rehired as superintendent. In 2011, he received a $56,712 yearly pension and an annual $91,219 salary.

* Susan Martin, who was head of English Language Learners and is now chief academic officer for the Lewiston School Department, retired in 1998 at age 47. She was rehired by Lewiston in 2006. In 2011, Martin's annual pension was $31,500; her annual salary, $77,311.

School Committee concerns

Webster told the Lewiston School Committee that he'd hire retired workers for lower-paying positions. If a retiring teacher wanted to become an education technician or substitute teacher, that would be “great,” Webster said.

Even though the School Committee has no policy on prohibiting double-dipping, Webster has the authority to decline to rehire retirees. Maine law says it's up to school superintendents to recommend whom to hire; school committees approve candidates.

His position has caused discomfort and questions among School Committee members. The School Department does not have an obligation to rehire employees who retire, said attorney Daniel Stockford of the law firm Brann and Isaacson. An employee “must actually terminate employment in order to begin collecting retirement benefits,” Stockford wrote in a letter given to committee members.

School Committee member Bob Connors, a former Lewiston school superintendent, didn't see Webster's logic.

Rehiring a retiree with a pension doesn't cost the school department any more, since someone will get a salary, Connors argued. And the school department doesn't have to pay for health coverage, since that's provided to retirees by the state.

Webster is ruling out a group of experienced, competent, retired workers, Connors said last week. “I disagree with his position that denies a person employment because they're retired.”

Webster said that with so many jobs lost in the tough economy and recent college graduates unable to find jobs, “to me, double-dipping is immoral.”

Connors said, “I guess that makes me immoral, then.”

After Connors retired from Lewiston, he worked as interim superintendent at a few districts, including Regional School Unit 4 in Sabattus.

Rob Walker of the Maine Education Association, the state teachers' union, said not all districts “have the luxury” of telling retirees they won't be rehired.

In Fort Kent, a physics teacher who is “gifted and talented” retired, Walker said. Fort Kent couldn't find another physics teacher, so that teacher was rehired.

“It has no effect on the local budget, no effect on the retirement system,” Walker said.

He said Webster's position “sounds like more of a personal choice." It cuts off options for retirees and school districts, Walker said.

Webster isn't like most superintendents in Maine. Before he came to Lewiston in 2011 and before he was superintendent in the Ellsworth area, he was CEO of Haven's Candies in the Portland area. He also spent years as a controller for Hannaford supermarkets. One reason he was hired in Lewiston was his business background.

Public more generous

Public-sector jobs are more generous than the private sector when it comes to retirement, Webster said. Pensions are things of the past. Some companies had pensions and “went bankrupt because of it.”

Today, most have 401(k)-type plans in which workers control their own retirement savings and employers contribute. With that kind of plan, “there is no liability to the organization over and above what they contribute,” Webster said. “The risk has been moved from employer to employee.” If employees invest in the stock market and the stock market tanks, it's the employee who's at risk, not the organization.

As long as taxpayers — and not public employees — bear the risk of paying pensions, there's a chance the current payout level is unsustainable without more tax money, Webster said.

The public sector is where the private sector was 25 or 30 years ago, Webster said. “One part of the attractive nature of public employment has been the nest egg. You put in your 20 or 30 years, you retire and you've got a very comfortable pension, often after working to an age that's far younger than a typical retirement age would be in the private sector.”

For years in Maine and across the country, educators and other government workers put in enough years — 20 has been common — to qualify for a pension, then retired and continued to work in the same job while drawing a pension and a salary.

It is perfectly legal, Webster said. Many Maine school districts “are happy to play this game” to save on health insurance costs. Because state taxpayers pay for pensions and health coverage, districts can rehire retirees without paying medical coverage, saving a district about $10,000 a year.

His refusal to rehire retired workers — one last year and two this year — is not just about Lewiston taxpayers. It's about taxpayers across Maine, Webster said.

A law proposed by Gov. Paul LePage's administration and passed last year as part of the budget process reduces the cost of double-dipping. The retirement age was increased from 62 to 65 for new state employees, and double-dippers can get only 75 percent of their incomes if they are receiving pensions. They are also restricted to five years of employment  after retirement.

Earlier this year, Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, introduced a bill that would limit these new restrictions to the mostly highly paid administrative positions, that of superintendents and principals, but would continue to allow teachers and other state workers to retire with pensions and be rehired at full salary. That bill failed by majority vote in Appropriations in May. 

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster makes a point at a recent School Committee meeting about rehiring teachers who retire.

What do you think of this story?

Login to post comments

In order to make comments, you must create a subscription.

In order to comment on SunJournal.com, you must hold a valid subscription allowing access to this website. You must use your real name and include the town in which you live in your SunJournal.com profile. To subscribe or link your existing subscription click here.

Login or create an account here.

Our policy prohibits comments that are:

  • Defamatory, abusive, obscene, racist, or otherwise hateful
  • Excessively foul and/or vulgar
  • Inappropriately sexual
  • Baseless personal attacks or otherwise threatening
  • Contain illegal material, or material that infringes on the rights of others
  • Commercial postings attempting to sell a product/item
If you violate this policy, your comment will be removed and your account may be banned from posting comments.

Advertisement

Comments

Mike Lachance's picture

And Webster is getting flak!

Anyone who has an issue with Mr. Webster on this one should have their head (or union card) examined.

Richard Begin's picture

One dip or three scoops

Superintendent Webster

Raising the Bar.

Unfortunately Bob Connors represents the Problem and Mr Webster represents the begining of the Solution . Imagine Bob Connors could not understand why Mr Webster was saying what he said

What About that Bob ?

Jackson Dunleavy's picture

Retirees most qualified?

Education has changed immensely over the last 30+ years. What is best for schools and students are to have teachers that they can associate with and teachers that understand how technology is shaping how students learn and receive their education.

Most retired teachers almost make twice as much as a teacher with a few years of experience. If you want to retire than retire. Schools need younger teachers that will stick with a school system for the long run.

Mr. Webster has made great business decisions that are in the best interests of the students in the Lewiston Public Schools System. However, it is unfortunate that there is an exodus of young talented teachers leaving that system because of how their older-more seasoned teachers have treated them at the negotiating table.

David Pinkham's picture

Work or retire

If you want to work then work. If you want to retire then retire. If you can't see the dishonesty in trying to do both then you're part of the problem.

CRYSTAL WARD's picture

Mark some corrections

1. A person retiring at 47 would NOT get a full pension they would lose a % for every year before their retirement age. Those in MePers before 1990 would lose 2.25% per year for every year before age 60, those after 1990 would lose 6% for every year before their retirement age of 62. Starting last year the age will be 65. So there are several things that must he done to get a FULL pension.
2.No FULL healthcare 44% paid by the State, 56% by retiree, (only for retiree not family as is believed by some) the current law says if you retire before your retirement age you pay the whole cost until you reach retirement age.
3. workers in the MePERS must pay into the system 7+% of their wages -- currently the state put s in about 2% ---this is like the Social Security system and the state workers are required to be in the MePERS system -- the workers paid every penny of their part of the plan established by Maine.
4. As for fairness -- the workers in MePers were working under the established rules-- paying their fair share and following every rule - many worked under these rules for 25-40+ years and now at the end are told sorry the rules are changing
Fairness is what we are looking for !! Changing the rules after the "game " is played is not the definition of FAIR to me.
5, Now after retirement the "rules" are changed we need to make money to live and we may have to go back to work and the job we are highly qualified, educated, trained and experienced in we can not get hired to do in Lewiston. FAIR??? I think Not.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

There are few people, if any,

There are few people, if any, in the private sector that can retire at age 47 and collect full pension benefits and healthcare; that is amazing.

I give Kudos to Bill Webster for shining light on this behavior and taking action.

The next step is to convert all public employees over to a defined contribution retirement plan (aka 401k) to bring employee costs in line with the private sector.

We do live in the age of fairness, right?

DANNY FITZSIMMONS's picture

How about that!

How about that A well overpaid bearucrat with some ethics! the State and City Execs are quick to beat the poor up to cover up the true out of control taxes thier saleries and benefits!! NOT ONE OFFICIAL NOR EMPLOYEE SHOULD HAVE HEALTHCARE AFTER 3 MONTHS OF TTERMINATION!! It really is a smoke screen the state employees cost over 1.5 million PER DAY the cost of dhhs sevices and maine care combined is a drop in the bucket in comparison. Lepage should have some real ethics like jeez he will be a one term govenor and will get a 30 grand pension and health benes for life and other elected officals get such perks as well yet you dont hear them passing bills to stop such waste. So when I hear an Exec with the ethics to cry foul I am taken back and makes me think not all of them are out to rob the taxpayers so I wish others would stand up that would be just the first step in co ntroling our debt as this problem is magnified ten times in the federal sector!

 's picture

KUDOS!!!!

This is what needs to be front page of every newspaper across America! I moved away from Maine a few years ago and was there this past spring. I was appalled with the cuts this so called governor has made! Danny, you should run for election!!!!

Mark Elliott's picture

It's about time we start

It's about time we start seeing some backbone in our school districts!

PAUL MATTSON's picture

BRAVO!

BRAVO!

Jackson Dunleavy's picture

Thanks you....

Mr. Webster you are doing a good thing here. Keep up with the sound decision making.

Advertisement

Stay informed — Get the news delivered for free in your inbox.

I'm interested in ...