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Sunshine Week: Persistence and public records pay off in tracking double-dipping school chiefs

By   /   March 13, 2013  /   No Comments

Part 3 of 6 in the series SUNSHINE SPECIAL: How I got the story

Sunshine Week (March 10-16) celebrates citizen participation in government while underscoring the necessity of government transparency. Each day this week, we’ll take you behind the scenes to show you how Watchdog reporters use publicly available documents and hard work to reveal how government really works. — Editors

NJ-doubledip-inside

 

By Mark Lagerkvist │ New Jersey Watchdog

A recent New Jersey Watchdog investigation revealed 45 “retired” school chiefs had returned to the public payroll, double-dipping millions of dollars a year from pension funds and local education budgets.

By using a loophole in state law, the retirees landed lucrative, post-retirement jobs as interim, or temporary, superintendents. One example was a superintendent paid $108,230 a year for a three-day work week – in addition to her state pension checks of $131,964 per annum as a retired superintendent.

“It’s the way the system is set up,” said the double-dipper. “I took advantage of it.”

While the interims get richer, a pension system facing $42 billion shortfall gets poorer.

A story on how much public employees receive from public funds may seem simple and straightforward at first glance. But New Jersey Watchdog’s report required three months of painstaking research, roughly 100 formal requests for school records and even litigation.

My first step was to search a state database to build a list of interim superintendents working in the state’s 600 school districts. The next move was to use an online search engine to find which of those officials were drawing a state pension.

The most time-consuming and tedious task was to prod, poke and push school districts to provide copies of their contracts with interim school chiefs, districts that weren’t eager to see their deals opened to public scrutiny. Despite a state law requiring the districts to provide “immediate access” to such records, a number of schools were reluctant to comply with statute.

One school district refused to acknowledge or even respond to my Open Public Records Act requests for two months. So I had my attorney to sue the district in New Jersey Superior Court.

The schools’ lawyers cried foul, claiming I had not given the district fair warning. But they also turned over the records immediately in hopes of avoiding a judge’s wrath. After the district complied with the request and agreed to pay my legal fees, the case was settled.

Word spread quickly. When other schools learned of the lawsuit, I received a sudden flood of records from administrators who had been taking their time to produce records.

As I gathered the data for the story, I noticed a trend. Several “retired” school administrators had been repeatedly hired as interim superintendents, often traveling from district to district to collect small fortunes as double-dippers.

So I sent each of the districts a second OPRA request. This time, I wanted the resumes of the interim superintendents they had hired.

When one district refused, I threatened to sue. I also sent district officials a copy of an executive order from the governor’s office declaring that resumes of hired candidates for public jobs were, in fact, public records. The district immediately apologized and provided the requested document.

In the course of this additional research, New Jersey Watchdog found one retiree who had worked as an interim superintendent for 23 school districts since he retired in 1994. During that 18-year stretch, the “temporary” school chief had collected $1.2 million in pension checks while drawing executive pay at taxpayers’ expense.

“I’m in this just to help the district out,” said the school executive.

When confronted on camera after a school board meeting by NBC 4 New York – New Jersey Watchdog’s television partner – the interim superintendent refused an interview, trying to cover the reporter’s microphone with his hand.

The story was also picked up by several other news outlets, including:

The Philadelphia Inquirer and philly.com

The Star-Ledger and NJ.com

South Jersey Times

New Jersey Newsroom

 

It always helps to have a governor on your side. But it’s imperative to simply understand the open-records law in your state — and to know that most public documents are (or ought to be) available to the people.

 

Mark Lagerkvist is Investigative Editor at New Jersey Watchdog. Contact him at  mark@NJwatchdog.org

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Mark Lagerkvist is New Jersey Watchdog's investigative reporter. He can be reached at mark@NJwatchdog.org.

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