very big problem

Teacher pension fund lost $9 billion last year while costs rose

In Albany this week, UFT President Michael Mulgrew floated a plan to save the city money by letting teachers retire earlier. But a new report on the health of the city’s teachers pension fund suggests that Mulgrew’s proposal would only compound the fund’s potentially crippling budget crunch.

The fund’s annual report, released last week, shows that it lost 29 percent of its value, more than $9 billion, last school year, even as the portion the city is required to pay reached unprecedented heights.

The mix of rising costs and declining value raises serious questions about how the city will be able to afford to pay the pensions it has promised in the future without major concessions by the teachers union.

The fund, called the Teachers Retirement System (TRS), is a collection of investments paid for with a combination of taxpayer dollars and teacher salaries. Every year a chunk of it is used to pay retired teachers and principals the pensions state law says they are owed.

picture-63Last year’s financial crisis sunk the fund to its lowest level in more than 15 years, effectively erasing all of the gains made in the past decade’s bull market, according to a database of TRS’s financial reports. Over that time span, the fund’s value, adjusted for inflation, has shrunk by more than $11 billion.

This leaves a $15 billion gap between what the fund expects to pay out in the next 30 or so years and what it will have saved by that time, according to the TRS’s preferred accounting method. Another way of calculating these “unfunded liabilities” used in the private sector puts the number even higher, at $27 billion.

“It’s not a crisis. It’s a long-run big problem: The pension system is far more costly than it ought to be,” said Charles Brecher of the Citizens Budget Commission, an independent group that advocates for changes in city and state finances.

Sources of the “big problem”

At the center of the mismatch between what is promised and what was saved is the basic structure of what is called a “defined benefit” pension. A typical defined benefit plan promises a certain annual payout to retirees, usually in the form of a percentage of the retiree’s final annual salary. In New York, these payouts are defined by law and are not adjusted to reflect how much a member contributes over time.

Nobody expects the amount a member contributes to fully fund his promised pension. The idea is that the difference will be made up through a combination of taxpayer dollars and market returns.

The problem is that since 2000 a slew of factors have made this gap between how much teachers put in and how much they take out larger than ever before. One reason is that salaries have gone up 43 percent in the past decade, hoisting up the final amount retirees can expect each year. Current teachers’ pay-ins, based on higher salaries, help a bit. But the effect is dampened by the fact that even as teacher salaries have gone up, the proportion of member contributions used to pay for the plan in each year has gone down. In 1999, teachers’ contributions made up 18 percent of the total. In 2009, they were only 6 percent.

Another gap-widening factor is the fact that, for the past decade, a state law has allowed the highest-paid teachers in the city to opt out of contributing to the pension altogether. The rule has changed with the start of a new pension system for employees entering work today.picture-65

In addition to raising salaries, the city has also granted a series of pension sweeteners in exchange for union concessions. In 2007, teachers with 25 years of service won the right to retire at age 55 with no penalty, a union victory that came in exchange for a touted performance-based pay deal.

The sweeteners reduced the retirement contributions for teachers and principals, putting more of the burden to pay for pensions onto the city. They also allowed per diem salary — money teachers make for taking on extra tasks like running after-school clubs and sports — to be counted in the overall final salary number. And, in 2008, a provision allowed teachers to retire early without being dinged in their pension earnings.

Together, the rising salaries and pension sweeteners have created a perfect storm: increasing costs just as the plan’s performance has plummeted in the down market. Although the TRS has not performed significantly worse than the market according to the new report, the annual rate of return it assumes — 8 percent — is high by most private standards. (To be fair, most public pension plans also use a number around 8 percent. Similar private sector plans assume a rate of around 4 percent.)

Assuming a steady and high rate of return leaves little room for error. Imagine that the fund fails to make 8 percent returns one year and instead breaks even. To recover the lost ground the next year, TRS will have to make last year’s 8 percent and this year’s, a total of 16 percent returns. The recession of the past two years has followed this pattern of compounding losses. As a result, the fund was so far behind last year that even the high market returns from earlier in the decade couldn’t make up for the losses.

picture-64All of this has left taxpayers to make up the burden. In the late 1990s, the amount the city put into the pension fund every year was around $500 million in today’s dollars. By 2009, the sum the city had to contribute ballooned to $2.2 billion. 

This amount is incredibly high, especially compared to the New York State Teachers Retirement System, which serves all teachers outside of New York City. Last year, the state contributed half as much to its teacher retirement system as New York City contributed to the TRS, even though there are twice as many retirees in the rest of the state as there are in the city.

Even the new Tier V pension plan, which increased all new teachers’ required contribution to the plan and doubled the amount of time before they can qualify to draw a pension, has not alleviated all costs. That’s because the Tier V law included a special provision for New York City’s teachers that no other plan received, allowing them to retire with a full pension at age 55 if they’ve taught for 27 years. Teachers in the rest of the state must wait until age 57 to retire with a full pension.

Though the city is not benefiting as much from Tier V as the rest of the state, Tier V reforms are still expected to save the city $19.1 million next year, according to Division of Budget estimates.

But E.J. McMahon, of the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, warns that Tier V will do little to close the TRS’s budget gap. Instead of making retirement benefits fundamentally sustainable, Tier V actually turns back the clock to before the recent decade of pension sweeteners, he argues. Tier V “does not deserve the label reform,” McMahon said.

Brecher doesn’t even think Tier V merits its name. “They call it that, but it’s not really a tier in the sense that it’s a big change in the benefit structure,” he said.

Grim prospects

Going forward, the city cannot alter any current TRS member’s benefits due to a state law that prohibits the public pensions from being “diminished [or] impaired.” Only a handful of states have this provision, which guarantees that pension reforms affect only future teachers.

One possible alternative for the future is a cash balance plan, which California and Nebraska have adopted for their employees. Cash balance plans blend features of the TRS model (the defined benefit plan) with features of private sector pensions, known as defined contribution plans, to spread out risk more evenly among employees and employers. Although cash balance plans were surrounded by controversy when they were first introduced, in recent years they have been gaining popularity in academic and public policy circles.

Another option is a straightforward defined contribution plan, like the 401k plans that are offered to private sector workers and even some CUNY and SUNY faculty. Such plans are subject to market fluctuations and are dependent on the quality of investment advisors, but some consider them less likely to see costs spiral out of control.

“Anything that has a defined benefit at the end of it … is complicated, more costly and subject to manipulation by the union through a legislature that doesn’t understand it,” McMahon said.

Any of these alternative pension plans could make their way into city teachers’ contract one day, but for now the UFT is publicly committed to at most tweaking the current system, as Mulgrew indicated before legislators yesterday.

“We believe in a defined-benefit plan,” said Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman, adding that he would not discuss contract negotiations with the media.

Whatever happens, making TRS sustainable is likely to require city teachers to give up some of the perks of their profession.

“It’s up to the union to decide whether they’re going to make some concessions on these benefits or take layoffs and both deprive kids of educational services or members of their jobs,” said Brecher of the Citizen’s Budget Commission. “That’s the trade-off.”

Kim Gittleson is a research assistant employed by Ken Hirsh, a GothamSchools funder and contributor.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”