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School districts turn to retirees to fill superintendent posts

Communities across the state are struggling to find administrators to lead their public school systems, spurring some to hire retired superintendents — who can collect windfalls worth tens of thousands of dollars.

About one-fifth of the state’s 275 superintendents leave or retire each year, and there is a shrinking pool of qualified applicants to replace them. This year alone, eight formerly retired superintendents are leading school districts.

“We’ve got serious problems attracting highly qualified people who want to be a superintendent,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Long hours, an increasingly politicized climate — exacerbated by criticism on social media — and a data-driven mandate by districts for students to score well on MCAS and SAT tests have placed superintendents under intense scrutiny, Scott said. Most superintendents last just five years in the job, and that pressure limits the applicant pool, he said.

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Traditionally, educators moved up the ranks from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent before applying for the district’s top job, which on average pays $155,000. But given the dearth of qualified applicants, more teachers and principals are now jumping directly into the superintendent’s chair.

At the same time, their relative lack of experience has given other districts pause, and some have halted searches for permanent superintendents in favor of veteran leaders who have experience assembling budgets and overseeing a district.

For retired leaders, taking an interim post can be highly lucrative. Many have taken advantage of a provision in state law that allows retired educators to earn a salary while also collecting a pension.

According to the state, the rehired leader can earn the difference between his or her annual pension and the amount currently being paid for the position from which the pensioner retired. The retiree can earn an additional $15,000 if a year has passed since retirement.

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But districts that receive a waiver from the state Department of Education do not have to follow the formula and can pay retired superintendents whatever they see fit.

The department began granting waivers 16 years ago as more superintendents began to take advantage of the early retirement law, creating the shortage that persists today.

That gives interim superintendents the ability to receive hefty sums. In Brookline, interim superintendent Joseph Connelly will earn $150,000 this academic year and collect a pension of $119,000. In Andover, interim school chief Sheldon Berman is slated to make a salary of $206,000 and a pension of $60,700. And in Peabody, interim superintendent Herb Levine’s contract calls for him to be paid $158,400, even as he pulls in a $119,000 pension.

Boston Municipal Research Bureau president Samuel Tyler said he understands there is a shortage of qualified administrators to lead school systems but cautioned that the state should be careful in granting waivers. This year, the state granted waivers to five districts, allowing the interim superintendents to command market-rate pay and collect a pension without restriction.

“To have a person come back and receive full pension and full salary is excessive,” he said.

Mary T. O’Donoghue, chairwoman of the Andover Board of Selectmen, describes the practice as double-dipping and believes educators who collect pensions should remain in retirement.

“A pension is a pension,” she said. “It’s for when you retire.”

Levine, Peabody’s interim superintendent, doesn’t believe there’s anything improper about collecting a paycheck and a pension at the same time.

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“I’m earning it,” said Levine, who added that he works seven days a week.

Since he retired 11 years ago as Salem’s superintendent, Levine has held a number of interim posts.

He collected a salary and pension while serving as interim superintendent in Blackstone-Millville and later became assistant principal at Marblehead High School before moving on to an interim superintendent stint in Peabody in 2011. Last summer, he began his second run as interim superintendent in Peabody, where he is slated to work until the end of the 2016-2017 academic year.

Levine said interim superintendents have substantial clout and flexibility because the appointments usually last just a year, making them less susceptible to the usual pressures and political issues of the job.

“Being an interim superintendent, really if you do it right, means never having to say you’re sorry,” Levine said. “It’s a position that you can get a lot of stuff done in a very positive way without having to look over your shoulder.”

Levine is one of several former superintendents who have served multiple years as an interim.

Since 2013, Alfred Skrocki has led the Lee Public School District and earns a salary of $79,200 and a pension of $84,900. Since 2012, Phil Devaux has worked two days a week as Nahant’s interim superintendent and received a $50,000 annual salary along with a $92,900 pension.

Brookline’s Connelly has worked steadily since retiring in 2007 as Stoneham’s superintendent. During that time, he has worked as the interim principal of two Brookline schools and as interim superintendent in Berlin-Boylston, Gloucester, and Harvard.

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Connelly, who received a waiver from the state to receive a market-rate salary, defended the right to collect a pension and a salary.

“I’m filling a specific need for a short-term basis and that’s very different from going in and taking away a job from someone for many, many years,” said Connelly, who will retire again on July 1 when Andrew Bott, a Brookline elementary school principal, becomes superintendent.


Steven A. Rosenberg
can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.