The Gwinnett County school district is spending tens of millions of tax dollars every year to offer their educators the Cadillac of retirement plans — allowing some career employees to draw almost a full salary through their golden years.
Across the nation, most teachers, government workers and even private sector employees would be green with pension envy. Gwinnett teachers who put in 30 years can bring home 87% of their final pay, with a promise of a little annual boost.
And J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent and CEO at the state’s largest school district, could wind up making 98 percent of his final salaries: $449,000-plus a year in retirement, based on district information.
That’s because Gwinnett educators are getting two pensions, the mandatory state pension and a rare, second pension. A combination of employee contributions and state and local tax money supports their participation in the Teacher Retirement System of Georgia.
But the second, local pension is funded 100 percent by the district — and thus Gwinnett taxpayers — at a cost of $139 million in the past three years alone. The district does not, however, contribute to Social Security for its employees.
According to information from the state Department of Audits and other financial reports, no other Georgia school district has a pension plan like Gwinnett’s.
It’s even helping the bottom line of current workers. The district boasts on its website that employee take-home pay is 5.2 percent higher than if the district were participating in Social Security. Employees pay only 1 percent of their earnings to support the district’s long-term disability fund.
Rick Cost, chief financial officer for Gwinnett County Public Schools, described the local pension plan as a “valuable tool in attracting and retaining outstanding teachers and support staff during times of fiscal austerity.”
With teachers’ salaries stagnant for about a decade, “a secure retirement program” has become “increasingly important,” Cost said.
Wilbanks said the pension is smart business. “Every good employer takes care of its people,” he said.
To Steve Ramey, though, using taxpayer money for the local pension plan “sounds extremely excessive.”
“That’s not to say that teachers don’t work hard and deserve a lot of money. They do,” said Ramey, with the Founding Fathers Tea Party in Gwinnett. But he said this appears to be continuation of what’s “been a long history in Gwinnett of abuse of taxpayer money.”
A ‘moral’ obligation
In the private sector, less than 20 percent of workers are covered by traditional pensions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead, companies may offer employees retirement saving accounts, such as 401(k)s, and may match a portion of employee’s tax-deferred contributions. But there’s no guarantee how much a worker will get in retirement. The balances in those accounts can go up or down with the stock and bond markets.
Most workers expect to get by in retirement, in part, on Social Security. But the average Social Security benefit for a retired worker is meager: under $15,000 at the beginning of 2012. The maximum benefit for someone at full retirement age is about $30,000 a year.
Keith Brainard, research director with the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, said Gwinnett educators have pension benefits well above the national norm for public employees not participating in Social Security. With both plans, their retirement check is about 30 percent higher than their counterparts nationwide, he said.
A Gwinnett teacher with an end-of-career salary of $59,312 will receive $51,612 a year in retirement, according to the district’s own estimates. And that amount will go up each year; Gwinnett’s local pension provides for automatic annual cost-of-living increases of 3 percent.
Wilbanks, 71, will be able to draw in retirement 80 percent of his salary from TRS, as a 40-year member of that plan. In addition, he’ll receive 18 percent of salary from the local plan which he’s been in for 30 years, or since its inception, district officials said.
He earned $503,622 last fiscal year, and $413,997 the year before, according to district records, making him one of the nation’s highest-paid superintendents.
Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he was surprised to learn that Gwinnett employees can draw two pensions.
“Wow, that’s awfully good,” he said. “That might give Gwinnett a competitive edge in recruiting teachers.”
But it’s not clear that the local pension is widely known outside the district. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard an educator say they want to get into Gwinnett because they have a better pension,” Callahan said.
Cost said there is evidence that some Georgia school districts are spending more than Gwinnett for employee retirement benefits, because they are in both Social Security and TRS. He notes Social Security mandates employers to pay a tax of 6.2 percent of salaries, while Gwinnett pays about 5 percent into its local pension plan currently. That amount fluctuates. In recent years, it was almost 6 percent, records show.
Cost also said that other districts supplement their TRS benefits with matching contributions to employees’ retirement savings accounts.
“I think there are more systems that are paying for a Ferrari and only getting a Volkswagen when they retire,” he said.
Social Security is more complex than that, though. The tax only applies to a portion of the salary of highly paid workers. This year, the tax applies only to the first $113,700 of pay. There’s no Social Security tax on earnings above that. Gwinnett had about 100 employees earning over that amount.
Another difference is that districts in Social Security aren’t liable if the plan runs short of money. If Gwinnett’s plan, currently now well funded, runs short, taxpayers are on the hook.
In metro Atlanta, DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton and Atlanta school districts do not participate in Social Security. Cobb is among ones that do.
Of the state’s 180 school districts, 56 offer retirement savings accounts that are similar to a 401(k), according to the Georgia Department of Audits. But not all offer an employer match. Some expect their employees to get by in retirement on their TRS checks.
Wilbanks said he’s been firmly committed to the local pension plan, even during tough times and state budget cuts that forced the district to furlough employees, eliminate jobs and increase class sizes. This year, the district also raised property taxes for the first time in years.
“You can’t go back on something you promised employees would be there,” Wilbanks said, adding that he considers the pension’s continuation a “moral” obligation.
Local pension plans have proven to be headaches.
In 2011, state auditors found that Atlanta Public Schools had the worst underfunded large pension plan. APS had assets at the time to cover about 17.4 percent of its pension promises. Many experts agree that a pension plan should have 80 percent to 90 percent of the money it is obligated to pay out. It is short more than $554 million.
The plan in Fulton County Schools is only about 50 percent funded and needs about $224 million to close the funding gap, according to information from state auditors.
The legacy plans in both Atlanta and Fulton are no longer open to new teachers, as the districts struggle to pay off promised benefits.
Fulton’s plan is open only to new bus drivers and other non-educators. The same is true in rural Polk County in west Georgia.
By contrast, Gwinnett’s plan is well funded. It had $1.5 billion in assets at the end of 2012, more than 100 percent of its forecast obligations. That year, the plan paid $43,971,624 in retirement benefits and $2,520,171 in long-term disability benefits.
Even Gwinnett has seen the need to rein it in a bit, though. Last year, the school system changed the rules of its local pension plan so that 10 years of service, not five, are required for an employee to be eligible — matching the eligibility requirement of TRS.
As of Oct. 31, the district had 19,725 employees on staff who could be eligible for pensions with 10 or more years of service. About 6,000 retirees and their beneficiaries are receiving pensions under the plan, and another 3,099 former employees are vested but have not starting drawing benefits yet, according to data provided by the district.
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