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By Robert McCoppin | Daily Herald Staff - 4/25/2010
Seabrook Island, S.C., is an oceanfront community with gracious custom homes, two championship golf courses, pools, horseback riding on pristine beaches and fine dining on Low Country cuisine. BACK TO STORY
Seabrook Island, S.C., is an oceanfront community with gracious custom homes, two championship golf courses, pools, horseback riding on pristine beaches and fine dining on Low Country cuisine.
A short drive from Charleston, this is a place where, as its Web site states, "the world rarely intrudes."
Seabrook is a private island, meaning the average taxpayer isn't invited, but it is home to a man living off Illinois tax dollars: retired Palatine schools Superintendent John Conyers.
Conyers, 64, retired from Palatine Township Elementary District 15 in 2003, and according to public records, built a $690,000, 3,800-square foot home in Seabrook Island the following year.
He got $217,482 last year as a pension from the state of Illinois, according to the Teachers' Retirement System. Thanks to 3 percent annual cost of living increases, that's up by $33,556 since he retired.
He's one of many retired administrators from the suburbs who are among the top school pension recipients in the state.
Public pensions are the focus of intense scrutiny as Illinois tries to figure out how to pay $78 billion it owes to pension funds and as those in the private sector who aren't in line for similar pensions balk at the prospect of higher taxes to fund others' retirements.
Though Illinois lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn proclaimed "historic" reform in changes to the pension system signed into law April 14, they affect only public employees who haven't yet been hired and generally are decades away from retiring. Meanwhile, the pension system for all current employees continues unaltered.
School teachers and administrators - who account for more than half the state's pension liability, $44 billion - say they shouldn't be blamed for the state shirking its financial obligations.
Pensions are protected by law and, with the salaries on which they are calculated, help lure good people to important jobs, they say.
To get an idea where some of the money is going, the Daily Herald obtained from TRS a list of the 700 elementary and secondary school educators in Illinois who got the largest pensions in 2009. All but a handful are administrators.
Statewide, 131 school retirees get pensions above $150,000 a year. Fourteen have pensions above $200,000 a year.
At the top of the statewide list is Laura Murray, 59, former superintendent of Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School District 233, with a pension of $238,882 a year.
Next is Gary Catalani, 59, who retired in 2007 as superintendent of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 and collects $237,195 a year from his Illinois public school pension.
The third-highest recipient is former Carol Stream Elementary District 93 Superintendent Henry Gmitro, 57, at $234,803 annually.
Catalani was once the highest-paid superintendent in Illinois, with $380,000 in annual total compensation before he retired, according to TRS. His contract with the local school board became the subject of a highly publicized court battle when District 200 denied a resident's request to see the document until the Illinois Supreme Court last year ordered school officials to turn it over, two years after Catalani left Wheaton Warrenville.
Based on IRS tables of life expectancy, Catalani stands to be paid $9 million in retirement funds from the state of Illinois - compared to the $327,135 he and the school district contributed on his behalf, TRS data showed.
Like many educators, Catalani is still working even though he is getting a pension.
He is superintendent for a school district in Scottsdale, Ariz., where published accounts state he makes $205,000 - but District 200 still pays for his health insurance.
What do these administrators have in common? They were all highly paid at high-performing suburban schools, and they typically got big salary increases in the last four years on the job, the period on which pensions are based.
They also typically took early retirement, at age 55.
Among pension recipients, these administrators make far more than most teachers.
The Teachers' Retirement System, the state's largest pension system based in Springfield and Lisle, points out that less than 2 percent of its retirees made $100,000 or more in 2009, and that more than 60 percent collected less than $50,000 for the year.
"Unfortunately, we heard all the horror stories of superintendents who bled districts dry with their antics," said Melba Hanssen, retired principal of Patton Elementary School in Arlington Heights. "For every superintendent there's a couple of hundred teachers who aren't getting that."
Members of TRS point out they send 9.4 percent of their salaries toward retirement compared to 6.2 percent for people paying into Social Security, which does not cover Illinois public school teachers. Schools contributed 0.58 percent of payroll toward pensions, while private-sector employers chip in 6.2 percent toward Social Security for their workers.
But teacher pensions pay out at a much higher rate, an average of $43,000 a year, up to 75 percent of the average of the four highest years of salary, compared to a maximum annual Social Security benefit of $28,152 for a 66-year-old retiring this year.
Under the recent pension changes, future public school educators and other state employees will only be able to collect pensions based on a maximum salary set at $106,800 for next year.
But it affects only employees who have not yet been hired and thus would be decades from retirement.
Catalani, Conyers, and other superintendents at the top of the pension list did not return Daily Herald phone calls about their pensions.
District 15 board President Gerald Chapman conceded that boards give end-of-career raises to boost pensions as a standard part of negotiations, but defended it as part of the competition to hire top people.
"If you participate, you look at the rules and try to do whatever you can to enhance your pension," he said.
"You start at a low level, and at the end of your career, you maximize your salary. The pension by law is based on the maximum you're making as opposed to the contributions you made at a far lower salary, so there are tremendous inequities."
Chapman knows the situation from both sides. The retired superintendent at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, he receives a state pension of $196,595 a year, the 17th highest payout in the state last year among retired public school administrators and teachers.
Chapman wasn't on the school board when Conyers retired and wouldn't comment on Conyers' or his own pension.
District 15's current superintendent, Daniel Lukich, gets total compensation of $229,967, a big boost from his previous salary of $147,325 as head of a smaller suburban Cleveland district but well below Conyers' total compensation of $353,000 his last full year of employment, according to TRS.
Chapman pointed the finger at what he said are union-friendly state lawmakers who created pensions that allow early retirement and pay up to 75 percent of final average salary, but don't fund them.
"Clearly this is very, very expensive," Chapman said.
"If you're going to make the rules, you ought to fund the rules you make."
But changing the rules also has financial consequences. Eliminating early retirement saves on pensions but can cost schools more for salaries, said Dave Griffith, president of the Naperville Unit District 203's teachers union.
Among the few top pension recipients who were teachers, three were from District 211, where the average teacher salary is now $92,811, one of the highest in the state.
All three teachers participated heavily in after-school duties such as shows, athletics and summer computer setup, which added up to nine paid stipends and consequently raised their pensions.
When one of them, John Van Hook, started teaching, he said, a pension was "the furthest thing from my mind."
After serving in the military in Vietnam, Van Hook became one of the original instructors at Schaumburg High School when it opened in 1970. He became choral director, and ended up as music chairman for the district. He said he directed two shows a year and that he for years worked from 7:30 a.m. to 10 at night.
He won a KOHL international teaching award and a state teaching award.
"My teaching life in all reality was my life," he said. "I was very proud of it."
Retired since 2001, Van Hook now collects $119,571 a year in pension. The amount, he said, is "overwhelming."
He gives some back in the form of leadership scholarships at Schaumburg High School and at MacMurray College in downstate Jacksonville, where he is a trustee. In retirement, he also has traveled extensively and serves as music minister at Our Saviour's United Methodist Church in Schaumburg.
While he questions how the state got away with failing for decades to fund the pensions adequately, he supported recent action to change the rules for future workers in an attempt to make the system sustainable.
"If you tell people up front what (the pension) is going to be," he said, "that is OK."
District 211 board President Robert LeFevre was not on the board at the time those teachers retired, but said they would have been subject to the same contract as all teachers in the district.
"We strive to hire the absolute best teachers we can get," LeFevre said.
"Compensation is one way of attracting the best people."
• Daily Herald staff writers Matt Arado and John Patterson contributed to this report.