Analysis: Long Island leads state with highest-earning K-12 employees

| Newsday

John Hildebrand and Michael R. Ebert

The top 10 paid employees in New York State’s K-12 public schools hailed from Long Island, with total annual compensation ranging from $444,000 to more than $540,000, state payroll records show.

Records newly released by the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System include teachers, administrators and other professional school workers currently employed, as well as those who retired over the past year. Among the highest-earning employees, 77 of the top 100, as well as 579 of the top 1,000, worked on the Island, according to a Newsday analysis.

No. 1 on the compensation list for the 2018-19 school year was Michael Ring, former superintendent in the Rocky Point district who retired last summer after nine years on the job, with a compensation package worth $547,049. Numbers two through 10 were all staffers in the Central Islip district, with compensation ranging from $444,332 to $514,934.

Compensation included both annual salaries and, in the case of retirees, extra payments in the form of final payouts. Payroll records from the teachers’ pension system covered more than 250,000 employees of regular public schools, charter schools, regional BOCES and public colleges across the state.

In New York State, schoolteachers and administrators customarily cash in unused sick days upon retirement — a practice that can boost compensation by thousands of dollars in their final year of employment. In addition, retiring school workers are credited for extra money they may have earned beyond their annual salaries, such as stipends for coaching or serving as advisers to student clubs.

Local school leaders interviewed last week described such payments as well-deserved in many cases. Ring did not respond to Newsday’s request for a phone interview.

Howard Koenig, superintendent of Central Islip schools, said teachers in his district last year, in addition to their regular duties, managed to raise more than $88,500 in scholarships for local graduates through fundraising and personal donations.

“For what it’s worth, we have a very talented and dedicated staff, who go above and beyond for our students,” Koenig said.

Koenig went on to note that the high-dollar figures in his district reflected a recent retirement incentive offered to teachers.

The region’s taxpayer advocates take a more skeptical view.

“Those payouts are unbelievable,” said Andrea Vecchio, a longtime taxpayer activist in the East Islip district, which adjoins Central Islip. “It’s time to stop this, especially in districts that are struggling to educate the kids. Those Central Islip salaries really stick out, and they’re not going to help one single kid.”

The teachers’ retirement system ranks among the 10 largest public-pension funds in the nation, with more than $119 billion in investment assets, according to the latest published figures. Newsday obtained the system’s latest payroll figures by filing a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

The Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Albany, analyzes public payrolls annually and posts rankings of individual compensation packages on its website, seethroughny.com. Last month, the center reported that more than 25 percent of teachers and administrators in school districts outside New York City received total compensation of more than $100,000 in 2018-19.

School employees with six-figure compensations were especially concentrated downstate, the center found. Those workers included 31,865 members of the teachers’ pension system in Nassau and Suffolk counties, together with 11,802 members in Westchester and Putnam counties.

“Long Island and Westchester have the highest numbers by far,” said Peter Murphy, a senior fellow at the Empire Center. “Downstate in general is a more expensive place to live than upstate, and one of the contributors to that is high property taxes.”

Murphy added that retirement payouts were a big cost factor.

“I’ve looked at a lot of contracts, and it varies all over the place, but you can get anywhere from 200 to 350 days of sick leave payout,” Murphy said.

Matthew Hamilton, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest educators’ union, described the organization’s members as highly experienced and dedicated.

“NYSUT is proud to support hundreds of thousands of educators who deserve fair pay and benefits that reflect their hard work,” Hamilton said.

Publicity surrounding the annual pay rankings have become a sensitive issue on the Island.

Hank Grishman, superintendent of the Jericho school system, widely considered among the region’s best, declared in 2011 that he would not seek additional salary and benefits as his contracts were renewed. His latest extension runs to the summer of 2023.

Grishman’s annual compensation, a combination of salary and benefits, is listed at $354,891.

“As I looked at my salary and benefits, I realized I was very well-compensated for what I did,” Grishman said during a phone interview. “I did not want to be a headline for the Jericho school district as the highest-paid superintendent in New York State.”

Newsday’s review of payments to public school teachers and administrators found a pattern similar to that described by the Empire Center. Newsday’s analysis focused on schools alone, while Empire’s looked at both schools and colleges.

One notable was the high number of teachers from Central Islip — 23 — who ranked among the 100 best-compensated statewide. Central Islip is not a rich district; its taxable wealth in terms of real estate and family income is less than half the state average.

Nonetheless, local teacher contracts long have ranked among the best on the Island. In large part, this reflects the leadership of a former union leader in Central Islip, Richard Iannuzzi, who went on to serve as NYSUT’s president from 2005 to 2014.

TOP COMPENSATED PUBLIC SCHOOL EMPLOYEES

Total compensation — salary, benefits and retirement payouts when applicable — for the top 10 public-school employees in New York State. All are from Long Island.

Name School District Compensation

Michael Ring Rocky Point $547,050

Louis Celenza Central Islip $514,934

Patricia Kane Central Islip $504,714

Toni Kaleita Central Islip $503,891

Octavia Diaz Central Islip $499,774

Daniel Creedon Central Islip $495,510

Eileen Kirchhoff Central Islip $491,844

Lois Scarlato Central Islip $478,294

Lawrence Butzke Central Islip $462,896

Thomas Gordon Central Islip $444,332

SOURCE: New York State Teachers’ Retirement System

© 2019 Newsday