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updated: 7/28/2011 4:38 AM

Ex-school administrators get big pension boosts

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  • Former Stevenson High School District 125 Assistant Superintendent James Hintz got an extra $33,365 in his pension this year, thanks to an annual cost-of-living increase the state banked for him until he turned 61.

      Former Stevenson High School District 125 Assistant Superintendent James Hintz got an extra $33,365 in his pension this year, thanks to an annual cost-of-living increase the state banked for him until he turned 61.
    Daily Herald File Photo/August 2004

  • Pension boosts

    Graphic: Pension boosts

 
 

James Hintz received a $33,365 raise this year.

That's despite retiring as Stevenson High School District 125's assistant superintendent in 2005.

Since Hintz -- the district's former finance guru -- retired at 55 six years ago, he's been receiving his pension without the yearly 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment retirees 61 and older receive.

However, that doesn't mean early retirees like Hintz lose out.

The Illinois Teachers Retirement System simply holds the money for them until they reach age 61 and then it's released over the course of that magical year. Hintz hit that age this year, so his monthly pension checks went from $16,787 last year to $19,567 this year, according to data from the TRS.

That $234,810 annual pension places Hintz at No. 26 on the United Taxpayers of America's "Top 100" Illinois public pensioners list, up from No. 59 a year before.

Even though Illinois lawmakers took a stab at reining in future pension costs by changing the annual cost-of-living increase formula, the new rules don't prevent early retirees from accumulating those annual adjustments and getting the money when they reach age 61.

"These are pension millionaires," complained UTA's Vice President Christina Tobin. "They're getting much more money than the private sector."

Hintz could not be reached for comment.

The list is culled from data on more than 350,000 retirees participating in six state pension programs, UTA officials said. In addition to the teachers' pension program, the Chicago-based anti-tax group also looked into pensions for former judges, university employees, state employees, legislators and local government workers.

The list of the 100 highest-paid retirees, with annual pensions ranging between $414,471 for a former University of Illinois-Chicago professor of medicine and $195,000 for two other former UIC staffers, accounts for $22.7 million in pension payouts a year.

Two-thirds of those on the top 100 list are retirees from state universities. Four Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund pensioners are on the list, as is former longtime state Rep. Arthur Berman from Chicago.

The other 29 are former school district administrators, at least two of whom have yet to reach their own cost-of-living boost. They are former Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Gary Catalani and former Carol Stream Elementary District 93 Superintendent Henry Gmitro.

Both men were 56 when they retired, according to TRS officials. Catalani retired in 2007, receives an annual pension of $237,195 and will get his cost-of-living bump of about $38,000 extra in 2013.

Gmitro retired in 2009, receives an annual pension of $234,803 and will get his cost-of-living bump of about $37,000 in 2015.

Catalani's retirement package famously caused a stir when the district's school board refused to hand over the details to a Wheaton resident. The resident sued and took the case all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled in the resident's favor. Catalani would go on to another school administration position in Arizona before retiring this year. The Arizona position paid him $195,000, but District 200 taxpayers were still covering his health care costs and he was getting his Illinois pension.

"Hindsight is always a good teacher and you might not do that sort of thing moving forward," said Rosemary Swanson, president of the District 200 school board and a member when Catalani's exit package was negotiated. "I try to learn from what we've done in the past and try to do better in the future."

Swanson said she didn't regret giving Catalani the kind of deal he wanted to keep him in place at the district, but does regret the subsequent cost to taxpayers.

"He really did marvelous things for our district ... at a time when there was a lot that needed fixing, and he fixed it," she said.

Although none of the 29 Teachers' Retirement System pensioners on the UTA's top 100 list were classroom teachers when they retired, teacher union officials criticized the list, saying it only serves to confuse taxpayers and pit private-sector employees against public-sector workers.

"These lists don't add any real information to a complicated conversation," said Kathryn Castle, president of the Elgin Teachers Association. "It's always a hard conversation because public and private (employment) are different for a reason."

Teachers contribute 9.4 percent of their pay to their retirement plan. They don't get Social Security when they retire if they receive a teacher's pension. TRS officials said pensions like the ones that appear on the UTA list are anomalies. Statewide, 87,654 retired teachers receive pensions, not including former Chicago School District teachers. More than 2,100 TRS pensioners receive amounts over $100,000 a year, agency officials said. The average annual pension from the teachers' plan is $42,782 this year.

Recently retired Illinois Education Association President Ken Swanson calls the focus on benefits for teachers and other public employees "pension envy."

"Classroom teachers have not been abusive of the system and are not the reason the systems are in financial distress," Swanson said. "We're in an environment where way too many people have lost their pensions or seen their pensions reduced through no fault of their own and there is this phenomenon I call pension envy. It's misplaced anger. These are people who have been victims of the corporate culture."

But Tobin says the state should move toward a more corporate retirement system where public workers pay into Social Security and 401(k) programs.

"The pension system for retired government employees in Illinois is broken and can't be salvaged," she said. "If we don't implement these changes quick, the system is going to collapse and these government employees are going to have nothing."

Got a tip?

Got a tip for the suburban tax watchdog? Contact Jake Griffin at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. And follow him at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and twitter.com/DHJakeGriffin.

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