By many accounts, Linda Nathan is performing duties for the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Dorchester that a top leader would: fund-raising, managing facilities, disseminating the school’s best practices, and evaluating the principal and director of operations.
But Nathan, a retired Boston Public Schools headmaster who is collecting a $105,000 city pension annually, doesn’t appear on the public charter school’s payroll. Instead, she serves as the executive director of two nonprofits the charter created: the Conservatory Lab Charter School Foundation and the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, which, according to federal tax documents, pays Nathan a $150,000 annual salary and a $4,500 retirement benefit.
Now, Nathan’s more than a quarter million dollars in pension and earnings is drawing attention from state and local regulators who question whether she is earning too much under the state’s public pension law. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education started investigating in the fall and shared its concerns with the Boston Retirement Board, which is in the process of scheduling a hearing.
If found to be in violation, Nathan may have to repay the retirement system tens of thousands of dollars.
Nathan defended her earnings last week.
“I have never received compensation from Conservatory Lab Charter School, which would trigger the requirement to disclose such income to my retirement board,” she said in a statement. “Until DESE’s letter to Conservatory Lab in December of last year, I had no reason to believe that my compensation from [the Center for Artistry] might be an issue under the public pension law. My attorney has reached out to the Boston Retirement Board to clarify the circumstances of my employment and the source of my compensation.”
While state rules allow public pension collectors to earn as much as they like in the private sector, they place strict limits on work for government agencies in Massachusetts, even as consultants.
Under those rules, a pension collector can spend a maximum of 960 hours on government-related work each year, or about 18 hours a week, and their annual earnings for that work along with their pension payment cannot exceed $15,000 more than the position they retired from pays. Nathan’s salary as a headmaster her last full calendar year on the job was $130,300.
Speaking broadly about the rules, John Parsons, executive director of the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, said the restrictions apply even when a pension collector is not being paid directly by a government agency. For instance, retired police officers who work details that are paid for by a construction company or another private company are subject to the rules because they represent a public entity by wearing a municipality’s uniform.
“They are performing a public service,” he said. “You don’t get caught up on the fact that the construction company is paying for the detail. . . . If you are performing services on behalf of a public entity, the law won’t allow you to escape the limitations by calling yourself a consultant or saying you are a separate entity.”
State education officials came across Nathan’s compensation issue in reviewing the charter school’s request for another five-year operating license. They reached out to Boston officials after being unsatisfied with the responses they received in a meeting with school and foundation trustees and their legal counsel, according to a letter dated Dec. 20 by the education department to the charter school.
“It is unclear if [Center for Artistry’s] executive director, Linda Nathan, is in compliance with the Commonwealth’s post-retirement employment limits,” said the letter, which was obtained under a public records request.
State education officials also uncovered other problems during their review, faulting the charter school for a lack of transparency regarding the roles, relationships, and the finances of the Center for Artistry and the foundation, which was dropped from the charter school’s financial audit last year. Officials ordered the school in February to remedy the issues as conditions in renewing their operating license.
The pension dispute is the latest controversy to erupt at Conservatory Lab, which educates 440 students in preschool through grade 8 and is commonly called ConLab. Last year, ConLab unsuccessfully sought to join the Boston Public Schools in an effort to boost teacher pay, obtain a school building, and partner with a high school Nathan cofounded, Boston Arts Academy.
Several ConLab teachers also became irate in 2017 after the Globe reported that outgoing chief executive, Diana Lam, received a compensation package valued at nearly $300,000. The revelation followed the collapse of plans in 2016 for a new building in Roxbury, causing the school’s foundation to write off $1.4 million in development costs.
From the beginning, confusion has surrounded Nathan’s role due to a press release by the school and nonprofit in November 2015 that announced she would “join our organization as executive director” after Lam departed the following June, making it seem like they were unveiling a succession plan.
Nathan was quoted in the release saying, “I am truly excited to join an organization where I get to rub elbows every day with young students and teachers.”
Nathan also assumed the executive director job at the Conservatory Lab Charter School Foundation. Both the foundation and the nonprofit share a similar mission of promoting music-infused curriculums, which puts Nathan in a critical role of helping ConLab fulfill a state requirement that charter schools disseminate best practices.
In a statement Tuesday, the charter school’s trustees acknowledged the announcement “was inadvertently confusing.”
“We regret the error and want to be clear now that she was never executive director of Conservatory Lab Charter School,” the statement said.
ConLab eliminated the chief executive position after Lam’s retirement, making the principal and director of operations the top leaders.
In many ways, though, Nathan is part of the fabric of the charter school, where she is also both landlord and tenant. The charter school leases two buildings from the foundation for about $660,000 annually, while the Center for Artistry is located in one of them.
Among Nathan’s duties are: overseeing and evaluating the principal and director of operations; assisting them in developing the school’s music-infused curriculum into a national model; helping the foundation solicit grants and donations; and overseeing the foundation staff, according to a Globe review of its contracts since 2016.
The nonprofit’s employees are also classified as “authorized school personnel,” giving them access to student records.
The school’s trustees stressed in their statement that Nathan’s role “as it relates to [ConLab] is not administrative, operational, or day-to-day.”
Danna Mauch, chair of the board for the Center of Artistry, said that Nathan’s work goes beyond the charter school and includes running a leadership institute, providing consulting services to schools across the region and country, and speaking about arts-immersed education at academic conferences.
“Linda Nathan was hired to lead [the Center for Artistry] in a mission aligned with, but separate from, Conservatory Lab Charter School,” Mauch said in a statement. “Her role is diverse and extensive.”