March 1, 2024

School Official Finds Retirement Is Just A Higher Pay Grade

Mr. Bejarano is one of an increasing number of public employees here who are retiring one day and going right back to the same jobs the next, enabling them to supplement their income with retirement benefits without really retiring at all. The practice, restricted under Arizona law but common nonetheless because of loopholes, has come under fire recently from critics who say such “double dipping” is endangering the financial health of state pension funds.

“It’s faux retirement,” said Byron Schlomach, an expert on pensions at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative-leaning public policy group, who is critical of the practice. “There have always been people who have come out of retirement to help out, but it’s much more systemic now. People are figuring out, ‘Hey, there’s a way to take advantage of the system.’ ”

Mr. Bejarano, 58, the superintendent of the Isaac School District in western Phoenix, is an example of a nonretiring retiree. He intends to officially give up working on June 30 and then go back the next day to the same job as a consultant for a private education firm.

Many who retire and then immediately go back to work take lower salaries, giving a financial advantage to the school district or other public entity where they work. In Mr. Bejarano’s case, there will be no pay cut.

That he will receive the same salary and benefits of about $150,000 a year, along with a pension of about $100,000, has angered many local residents because Mr. Bejarano’s own financial restructuring comes as the struggling school district he oversees is planning to lay off staff members and close two schools.

“How dare you!” Rebecca Osborn fumed at a recent public hearing on the school closings as Mr. Bejarano looked on in silence.

The school district, which has about 7,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, sees the math differently. Sure, Mr. Bejarano will take home considerably more under the deal, but the district itself will end up paying him less, officials say.

They say that Mr. Bejarano is not overpaid, as some critics contend. A 2010 survey by the Arizona School Boards Association of 180 school districts and charter schools across the state found the average superintendent’s salary to be just over $105,000, putting Mr. Bejarano’s, not counting benefits, somewhere in the middle of the pack.

“It’s a real win for the district,” said its spokesman, Abedón Fimbres, who estimates the district will save about $12,000 annually since it will no longer have to contribute to Mr. Bejarano’s pension. A contracting firm, Educational Services Inc., will hire Mr. Bejarano for the same job he has now.

Mr. Fimbres praised Mr. Bejarano as having helped turn around student achievement in the district, which serves a largely blue-collar, immigrant community. A Phoenix native who graduated from Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, Mr. Bejarano has risen in the ranks at various local school districts, from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent, until he joined the Isaac School District several years ago as superintendent.

The district’s financial state is particularly dire now. The school closings are part of an austerity budget plan the district is proposing to prepare for an expected slash in education money from the state. Aggravating the problem is declining enrollment caused by families moving out of Phoenix because of the economic crisis as well as the state’s aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration.

Arizona expects a $1 billion budget shortfall next year, and schools are bracing for a substantial hit to their budgets, although no one knows for sure yet how much assistance they will lose. “Let’s say the state really becomes vicious and took 10 percent,” Jeffrey Gadd, assistant superintendent of business services, said as he outlined a budget plan that he predicted would require paring to the bone.

The idea that the superintendent will be earning significantly more than before just as employees are being furloughed and laid off and students are reshuffled to more distant schools has infuriated some in the community. But the practice of double dipping is not uncommon in this state, as a recent investigation of the practice by The Arizona Republic made clear.

Joseph Helms, another resident angry at Mr. Bejarano’s deal who spoke at the public hearing, told school officials they were being shortsighted in thinking they were saving money. “You are contributing to the very state budget deficit that is going to cut your budget,” he said.

But the district says it is playing by the rules by making Mr. Bejarano a consultant and not violating a state law forbidding public employees from drawing a pension if they return to the same job within a year.

The City of Phoenix was equally inventive when it allowed Jack Harris to retire as police chief in 2007 and then come back about two weeks later in the newly created position of public safety manager. His responsibilities were expanded, city officials say, but he worked out of the same office, held the same rank and continued to be the top administrator of the Police Department.

In 2009, he was sued by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based conservative legal group, on behalf of a group of current and former police officers who say he violated state law. The city has agreed to cover Mr. Harris’s legal bills.

Neither Mr. Harris nor Mr. Bejarano responded to requests for comment.

Mr. Harris was recently stripped of his direct oversight of the Police Department, but that was a disciplinary move after it was discovered that kidnapping statistics sent by his department to the Obama administration to obtain a federal grant were flawed. That controversy continues, prompting some of the chief’s critics to suggest that he consider the more traditional kind of retirement, in which one actually retires.

Mr. Harris is having none of that.

Referring to the insignia on his police uniform, he defiantly told reporters asking whether he might be pressured into a real retirement: “Anyone who wants these stars can come and get them.”

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