Eighteen Long Island educators are among the top 20 statewide who have the highest school-employee pensions, and the 10 largest payouts go to former superintendents in Nassau and Suffolk districts — each eligible to receive an annual pension of at least $250,000, a Newsday analysis shows.
A total of 32 out of 50 of the top-earning retirees are educators from Nassau or Suffolk districts, according to New York State Teachers’ Retirement System data as of June 30 that Newsday obtained under a Freedom of Information Law request. The data, which excluded New York City public school pensions, covered more than 150,000 retirees statewide with an eligible pension average of $47,000-plus annually.
Newsday’s analysis of the 100-highest pension earners showed nearly two-thirds were from Long Island’s 124 public school districts. The pension amounts are what the retirees are eligible to receive; they can choose to receive less, meaning their spouses would continue to receive a benefit after they die.
James A. Feltman, who retired in 2010 as superintendent of the Commack school district after nearly 40 years in public education, was first on the list, as he has been in prior years, with an eligible annual pension of $326,214.36.
James Hunderfund, another retired Commack administrator who currently is the Malverne district’s superintendent, has the fourth-highest pension statewide, at $317,289 a year. An educator with more than four decades’ experience, he retired from Commack in 2006. Hunderfund has been Malverne’s schools chief since 2007; his current annual salary is $234,500, district officials confirmed.
Feltman and Hunderfund declined to comment.
The Commack district, in a statement, said, “Both Dr. Hunderfund and Dr. Feltman served as superintendents in Commack. These longtime veteran educators were hired in Tier 1 of the NYS Retirement System, which had more generous allowances for retirement calculations than the later and current tiers. The calculation is made by the [state] comptroller’s office, not by the school district. Their retirement benefits are paid from the NYS Retirement Fund, and not by the Commack school district.”
Others eligible for the highest pensions had worked in the Half Hollow Hills, Syosset, South Huntington, Comsewogue, Oceanside, Great Neck and Massapequa districts.
According to the Teachers’ Retirement System, educators’ pensions are subject to federal income tax and are exempt from New York State income tax. Retirees who live outside the state and receive retirement benefits are subject to that state’s tax laws, which vary.
All but one of the retirees named in the top 10 enrolled in the retirement system before July 1, 1973, when there were fewer restrictions on the payments that could be used to calculate their pensions. Compared with the rules in place today, these Tier 1 pensions are far more generous.
Lawmakers implemented changes in 1971 that restricted payments used in the calculation of a Tier 1 benefit, eliminating items such as longevity payments and pay for unused leave. Since then, state lawmakers have created five additional “tiers” of pension-plan participants, largely in an effort to control costs. Each new tier has been more restrictive than the tiers that preceded it, in one or more ways, according to the Teachers’ Retirement System.
Some additional actions affect the pensions that more recent and future retirees will see.
Since at least the 1990s, the Internal Revenue Code has limited the amount of salary that can be counted in pension calculations for public employees.
Health insurance is not a part of pensions paid by the retirement system, TRS officials said. Any health insurance would be provided by the administrator’s or teacher’s employer and often is the result of collective bargaining between the school district and the local union.
Another factor in Long Island educators having high pensions is that many districts here pay their top administrators significantly more than districts upstate and in other areas, and this has been the case for years, officials said.
E.J. McMahon, research director at the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy, noted that the average pension for career Long Island teachers with 30 or more years of service who retired in 2015 was nearly $87,000. The nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank is fiscally conservative.
“In other words, career Long Island teachers are not only among the highest-paid in the country, they retire with the equivalent of a $1.3 million golden parachute,” McMahon said. “A male retiring at age 65 would need $1.34 million to purchase a private annuity plan yielding the same annual income for the rest of his projected life span.”
Robert Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents said pensions never again will be as large as Tier 1 payouts and noted that the council has supported actions to limit them. Lowry is deputy director of advocacy, research and communications for the Albany-based group.
Lowry said the organization supported Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Tier 6 pension reform proposal, enacted in 2012.
“Among other provisions, it limits the amount of salary that can be counted in calculating pension benefits to no more than $179,000 per year [the governor’s salary], and provides an option for administrators to choose a defined contribution [401(k)-like] retirement plan,” he said.
The Tier 6 reform also increased the share of costs paid by employees from the prior maximum of 3.5 percent of salary to 6 percent of salary for employees earning more than $100,000 per year.
The effects of the Tier 6 retirement benefit will materialize over the long term, Lowry said.
“It will hold down future pensions and significantly reduce costs for school districts,” he said.