The state's top earner for 2020-21 was an art teacher...

The state's top earner for 2020-21 was an art teacher in the Lawrence school district, according a Newsday analysis of payroll records from the New York State Teachers Retirement System. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nearly two-thirds of educators statewide who earned more than $300,000 during the 2020-21 school year were public school employees from Long Island, a Newsday analysis of payroll records from the New York State Teachers Retirement System shows.

Some of the salaries, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, included retirees who accrued unused sick and vacation days that were paid out in 2020-21. The data included pay for teachers and administrators representing 229,075 employees and almost $17 billion in earnings statewide.

What to know

Nearly two-thirds of educators statewide who earned more than $300,000 during the 2020-21 school year were public school employees from Long Island, a Newsday analysis of payroll records from the New York State Teachers Retirement System shows.

Of the statewide data, 59 educators earned more than $300,000, with 38 being from Long Island.

Because Long Island is one of the nation's most expensive places to live, education advocates say such compensation is necessary to recruit and retain staff.

The data shows about $5.3 billion in earnings of more than 56,000 Long Island public school employees. Statewide, 59 educators earned more than $300,000, with 38 being from Long Island. New York City's K-12 public schools were not included in the analysis.

The state's top earner, Christine O'Malley, who was an art teacher in the Lawrence school district, was paid $766,000 in 2020-21, but that total figure included money from a settlement with the district. An agreement was reached in April after the Lawrence Teachers Association challenged the district in Nassau County Supreme Court, according to court documents.

In a statement, Lawrence Superintendent Ann Pedersen said, "The retirement system data includes Ms. O'Malley's 2020-21 contractual salary and benefits, as well as earnings stemming from a court-ordered stipulation."

In New York State, schoolteachers and administrators customarily cash in unused sick days upon retirement, which can boost earnings. The data analyzed did not include job titles, but added in any part-time work. It included principals, coaches and other school staff, but did not distinguish between accrued compensation or annual salary.

Because Long Island is one of the nation's most expensive places to live, education advocates said the compensation is necessary to recruit and retain staff, especially as teachers and administrators work through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joanne O'Brien, dean of the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, said public educators are worth every penny.

"For a good administrator or a good teacher, I don't think it's possible to put a price tag on their value," she said. "I really, truly believe that a good teacher transforms a student's life for the better forever."

O'Brien said the high compensation for Long Island educators stems from when the Island was settled for suburbanites.

"They wanted to attract good teachers because good schools would attract good families," she said. "In my experience, Long Islanders do value education, and I do believe in some areas we have some of the best schools in the country."

O'Brien said teachers must master technology and all the variables associated with education today. "Those are skill sets that demand talented people, and they deserve to get paid well for their work," she said.

Andrea Vecchio, a longtime taxpayer advocate in East Islip who also is associated with regional group Long Islanders for Education Reform, said earnings will continue to build up because of a state law that allows workers to receive benefits after a contract runs out and before a new agreement is reached.

"There are automatic raises that happen every year, even when a contract is expired," Vecchio said. "Until that is changed, there is no way we are going to see relief."

Overall, Long Island had seven of the top 10 earners in data analyzed from the K-12 and university systems.

The state's third- and fourth-highest-paid educators were Kenji Fukaya, a mathematician at SUNY Stony Brook, with earnings of $486,963.83, and Charlene Murphy, of the Central Islip school district, with $474,026.66.

For the state's top wage earner, O'Malley, of Sayville, her settlement stipulated she retire in August. She suffered from a work-related injury in 2013 — mold exposure sustained at Lawrence Middle School — that led to respiratory distress, according to court documents.

The district required her to return to work in 2017, but she said she could not go back due to environmental conditions, according to the documents. The district terminated her full salary in January 2017.

The teachers' association filed a grievance, alleging the district violated the collective bargaining agreement. An arbitrator ruled in her favor from the date her pay was terminated to June 2020, which totaled more than $392,000, according to documents.

The settlement said O'Malley could return to work in January 2021, but work remotely, and that she would retire in August. The case was marked settled in Nassau County in June.

Neither O'Malley, nor her attorney, could be reached for comment.

With John Hildebrand

What to know

Nearly two-thirds of educators statewide who earned more than $300,000 during the 2020-21 school year were public school employees from Long Island, a Newsday analysis of payroll records from the New York State Teachers Retirement System shows.

Of the statewide data, 59 educators earned more than $300,000, with 38 being from Long Island.

Because Long Island is one of the nation’s most expensive places to live, education advocates say such compensation is necessary to recruit and retain staff.

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