A retired Boston Public Schools headmaster violated state law by collecting the full amount of her pension while working for a public charter school and now owes the city more than $67,000, according to a state investigation released Monday.
In many ways, Linda Nathan was effectively serving as a de facto leader of the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Dorchester, overseeing the principal, developing budgets, and disseminating the school’s best practices to other public schools, which charter schools must do under state law, according to the probe conducted by Inspector General Glenn Cunha.
Yet Nathan, who has an annual pension of $105,000, never appeared on the school’s public payroll. Instead, she worked as the executive director for an affiliated nonprofit, the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, which is located at the charter school, and earned a $150,000 annual salary, plus benefits. Nathan came aboard at the time the charter school eliminated its executive director, and the school initially welcomed her as the new leader.
State law forbids retired public employees who draw a government pension from earning significantly more in the public sector than they would have if they didn’t retire from the position they held — a calculation that tries to anticipate pay raises they would have received.
“Ms. Nathan’s pension plus the portion of her salary attributable to public service exceeds what her salary would have been if she had remained a BPS headmaster,” Cunha concluded. “As a result, [my office] recommends that the [Boston] Retirement Board seek recoupment of Ms. Nathan’s excess earnings from her future pension.”
Nathan, in an interview Monday night, said she was stunned by the inspector general’s report and disagreed with its conclusions. She said she looked forward to presenting her case to the Boston Retirement Board.
“I never took a dime of public money,” Nathan said of her nonprofit salary. “I never would have taken this job if I thought it violated any pension laws. All I wanted to do is work on this vision of improving public education through art and music. The report is not valid.”
Timothy Smyth, executive officer of the city’s retirement board, said it would review the findings and schedule a hearing. In cases such as these, if the board determines a violation has been made, it would try to work out a payment schedule with the offender, or the matter could wind up in court if the pension recipient disagrees.
Nathan has hired an attorney, Gerald McDonough. In a statement, he said the inspector general “has applied the law incorrectly."
"Linda Nathan never received any other public money while receiving a pension,” he said.
Nathan’s case comes as retired educators statewide are taking on what are supposed to be part-time consulting jobs, but their earnings can be difficult for public pension boards to monitor because much of the onus for reporting the information falls on the pension recipient.
Confusion surrounded Nathan’s relationship with Conservatory Lab Charter School from the time her hiring was announced. In a press release in 2015, the charter school left the impression she would be leading both Conservatory Lab and the Center of Artistry, and her hiring came about from a search to replace the school’s retiring executive director, a position that never ultimately got filled. Shortly afterward, Nathan clarified that she was only on the nonprofit’s payroll and was advising the school, training teachers, and helping to turn its music-infused curriculum into a national model.
But the arrangement raised concerns with officials at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education roughly two years ago as they were considering renewing the charter school’s five-year operating license. The officials, concerned about potential pension violations, referred the matter to the Boston Retirement Board, while the potential violations were subject of a Globe investigation last year.
The inspector general estimated 65 percent of Nathan’s time at the nonprofit was working directly with the charter school, and consequently that portion of her earnings should be used to determine the extent to which she was over-earning under state pension rules. Cunha characterized the estimates as conservative and encouraged the retirement board to conduct a more thorough analysis, which could result in a higher or lower payback amount.
Had the inspector general determined that all of Nathan’s work fell in the public sector, she could have owed the city pension system nearly $250,000 instead of $67,979, according to the investigation.
Conservatory Lab was one of two public institutions that Nathan consulted for at the nonprofit. At one time during her tenure, the nonprofit had a $33,500 contract with the Boston Latin School Association to provide diversity training at its school, according to the investigation.