The exterior of Commack High School (Nov. 11, 2010)

The exterior of Commack High School (Nov. 11, 2010) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Nine of the 10 highest-paid K-12 school employees in New York State are found on Long Island, according to figures for the state fiscal year that ended June 30 - and the top four are current or former district superintendents who each pocketed more than $400,000 in salary and benefits.

Taxpayers made those generous payments to eight Long Island superintendents, two of whom now are retired, and one deputy superintendent as layoffs and falling wages battered the private sector and school district budgets were pinched.

The Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative arm of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, produced the rankings, which are based on state retirement system numbers and do not include New York City public school employees. Figures are for total compensation and may include salaries, benefits such as car allowances, and, in the case of recent retirees, payouts for unused sick and vacation time.

The state uses the figures to calculate pension benefits.

James Feltman led the pack as the highest-paid public school employee in the state. Feltman, who retired as superintendent of the Commack Union Free School District in June after 24 years, took in $657,970. On his retirement, Feltman's contract allowed him to be paid for up to 185 days of unused sick leave.

Right behind Feltman was Syosset Central Schools district Superintendent Carole Hankin, who was paid $485,246. At No. 3 was Brookhaven-Comsewogue Union Free Schools district Superintendent Shelley Saffer, who retired in August and said her $462,084 compensation included accumulated sick time. Next up at No. 4 was Mount Sinai Union Free Schools Superintendent Anthony Bonasera, who took in $402,944 and said he took a $120,000 advance against money he would be entitled to in three years, when he plans to retire.

In all, 33 of the state's 50 highest compensated public school employees were from Long Island, according to the rankings.

Some observers said Thursday that an emphasis on payments to individual employees gives a simplistic and misleading picture of school districts' spending, overlooking critical issues such as the Island's cost of living and that schools here consistently rank among the top in the nation.

In the Half Hollow Hills school district, where Superintendent Sheldon Karnilow's took in $351,946, board president Anne Marie Sorkin called him a "bargain."

"He's got 10,000 kids that he gets to school every day. He's in charge of their health, their safety, their welfare, their education," Sorkin said. "He works 16-hour days, sometimes six days a week. . . . So we have, as far as I'm concerned, the most amazing superintendent."

Others expressed anger at the compensation for Long Island public school employees. "It's just ludicrous," said Fred Gorman, a founder of Long Islanders for Educational Reform. "It's just a shame what they are doing to taxpayers."

Long a critic of what he sees as a bloated and rapacious system of public education on Long Island, Gorman said the rankings were particularly galling to see during a period when so many are stretching their paychecks, if they even have paychecks to stretch.

"It's outrageous that our school boards literally take from people who are struggling and give to these educrats," he said.

While such sizable compensation may anger Gorman and those who agree with him, there are many reasons why superintendents on the Island make so much, said Larry Levy, who directs the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

Levy cited the region's high cost of living and the importance that Long Islanders have historically placed on education. Schools have been a "source of pride and prosperity," he said.

He pointed out that superintendents often hold doctorates, have decades of specialized experience, and in some cases run organizations with hundreds of employees - and, in the form of students, thousands of customers.

"By and large, it's not that they are making too much individually," Levy said of superintendents. "It's that there are too many of them. But there is no appetite on Long Island to eliminate school districts."

Levy expressed frustration with the Empire Center rankings, and said the issue of individual compensation is a "red herring" that distracts from larger problems with the quality of public education on Long Island and its cost, which acts as a curb on drawing new businesses.

"This is not where the real money is," Levy said. "It's flashy, it's gaudy, it rankles that somebody is making $250[000] or $300,000, but the real money is in teachers' salaries."

With Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

and Joie Tyrrell

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