Long Island school superintendents, retired or still working, are receiving the highest pensions among New York State educators -- benefits that can reach more than $300,000 a year, state records show.
Nineteen of 20 educators receiving the highest pensions statewide, and 34 of the top 50, served as schools chiefs in Nassau or Suffolk counties, according to New York State Teachers' Retirement System data obtained by Newsday under a Freedom of Information Law request.
James A. Feltman, 66, a former Commack superintendent, holds the No. 1 position. He qualified for maximum pension payments of $325,854 a year. Sheldon Karnilow, 66, a former schools chief in Half Hollow Hills, was No. 2 with a maximum annual benefit of $322,650.
James H. Hunderfund, who retired as Commack superintendent in 2006 and has been interim schools chief in Malverne since 2007, was No. 3. His listed maximum pension was $316,929 a year.
Hunderfund, 70, will receive a $235,238 salary during the 2014-15 school year for his work in Malverne, with an additional $12,004 in benefits and $25,590 in other compensation, according to figures posted by the state Department of Education.
Pension costs have emerged as a major political issue in New York State, especially after the 2008 stock market crash that drove down pension fund values and raised the amount of contributions that school districts and other government entities had to pay into pension systems to keep them solvent.
The dollar crunch has raised the question of whether the state can afford to continue offering public employees traditional pensions -- so-called defined benefit plans that guarantee a certain level of retirement payments. Public employee unions strongly support such plans, while business leaders favor what are called defined contribution plans similar to the 401(k). Those set rates of employee and employer contributions without guaranteeing ultimate benefits.
"All of this points back to the unsustainability of the state's pension system," said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based think tank.
Defenders of the state's program note that the pension benefits for most recipients are far more modest than those going to top earners. In 2013, the median pension provided statewide by the teachers' system was $41,700 a year.
Superintendents and their state representatives in Albany also said the pensions received on Long Island reflect the region's high cost of living.
State pension rules set no income limits on recipients who continue working past age 65. Younger recipients who work often face limits on earnings unless they obtain state waivers.
The statewide list includes a total of 147,500 school administrators, teachers and other education professionals such as librarians and guidance counselors. All pension figures are for the 2013 calendar year, the latest available.
Other state retirement systems cover state, county and municipal employees, as well as police and firefighters.
In February, the Teachers' Retirement System announced another in a series of rate increases, which will now require districts to pay a rate of 17.53 percent of every pension dollar paid for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Curbing pension costs
Both Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his predecessor, David A. Paterson, dealt with the problem of rising pension costs by pushing systematic changes through the legislature, including hikes in the amounts of money that teachers and other pension plan participants must contribute from their paychecks. Some nongovernment groups, including the New York State School Boards Association, have contended that more needs to be done to curb the costs to taxpayers.
The Teachers' Retirement System lists the maximum pensions for individuals, not actual payments, because of the legal requirement to protect recipients' privacy. Many recipients opt for payments below the maximum to provide larger death benefits for surviving spouses.
Many who enrolled in the system before July 1973, known as "Tier 1" employees, receive pensions substantially larger than their final salaries. Before lawmakers changed the rules that year, educators were allowed to factor in extra compensation, such as pay for unused vacation and sick leave, in calculating their pensions.
For example, Feltman's listed base salary was $263,000 when he retired in 2010, but his contract allowed him to be paid for up to 185 days of unused sick leave.
In May, the Empire Center won a ruling from the state's highest court, saying the names and benefits of pension recipients are subject to public disclosure. The Court of Appeals decision overturned a 2011 ruling by a lower court that temporarily suspended release of such information.
Newsday and 11 other news organizations supported plaintiffs in the case through the filing of an amicus brief.
Newsday tried to contact the top 10 educators on the list. Hunderfund declined through a spokeswoman to discuss his pension and salary.
Thomas C. Shea, 65, a retired South Huntington superintendent ranked fourth on the state's pension list, noted in an interview that compensation for educators was not always as high as it is today.
"I mean, I made $6,200 when I first taught in Plainedge in 1970," Shea said. "Getting a pension was the last thing on my mind then. I was just happy to get a job."
Shea's maximum benefit was $293,070 annually, but he said he opted for lower payments when he retired in 2012.
Played key roles
Most of the top 20 recipients in 2013 had worked 40 years or more. Several also served in key regional roles as well as performing local duties.
Shea, for example, was president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. Ronald L. Friedman, 69, who ranked eighth on the pension list, served as president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.
"My colleagues who worked for 40 or more years have steadfastly improved education for children on Long Island, and helped make Long Island one of the most desirable places for people to live," Friedman said.
Friedman, who headed three districts -- Long Beach, Great Neck and Syosset -- stepped down from his last post in Syosset in June.
Call for 401(k)-type plan
Since 1973, state lawmakers have created five additional "tier" groups of pension-plan participants in addition to those enrolled in Tier 1, largely in an effort to control costs. Empire Center analysts have contended that the changes do not go far enough and advocate a sweeping changeover to a system more like the 401(k) plans private industry has largely switched to.
Such plans, unlike traditional pensions, do not guarantee how much retired employees will get.
The Empire Center maintains that switching to a 401(k)-type system would protect taxpayers against sharp increases in contributions to public pensions should pension funds drop in value again because of stock market fluctuations.
"Look what happened over the last five years -- we saw pension payments skyrocket," said Hoefer, the center's executive director. "And this is all to maintain a system that has mostly disappeared in the private sector."
Cuomo advocated a 401(k)-type option in 2012 and pushed through part of that plan, but only for newly hired nonunion government workers earning $75,000 or more. The same system already enrolls professors in the State University of New York system.
Union representatives maintained that 401(k) plans involve considerable financial risk, and that traditional pensions provide more secure retirements for government workers who often earn less than private-sector employees.
"Every public employee should have a dignified retirement," said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state's biggest educator union.