Community college retirees draw hefty pension checks
BY BRETT CHASE AND ROBERT REED Better Government Association September 7, 2011 10:26PM
2001 FILE PHOTO - Waubonsee Community College President John Swalec announced his retirement, effective June 30, 2001.
Updated: November 26, 2011 12:28AM
For many students, community colleges are a low-cost alternative to more expensive state and private universities.
But Illinois taxpayers aren’t getting a break when it comes to paying for pensions awarded to thousands of retired community college administrators and teachers, according to a Better Government Association (BGA) investigation.
Nearly 20 percent of the more than 8,000 Chicago-area community college pensioners have collected in excess of $500,000 each in retirement payments, according to a BGA examination of state data. Nearly 170 have collected more than $1 million since retiring, including two former community college presidents who have received a total of almost $2 million each.
And nearly 500 retirees receive annual pensions of more than $100,000, the data show.
The pension payouts come at a time when Illinois is struggling to meet its bills, but the state is legally obligated to come up with billions to fund public employee pensions, including those of the community college workers. A recent change in law would reduce pensions for future hires only.
“I would bet that not one in 10 Illinois taxpayers knows these community college retirees are getting such rich benefits,” says William Zettler, a local pension consultant who is an advocate for public pension reform and has worked in the past as a paid consultant to the BGA.
The BGA reviewed pension data from June for community college retirees in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will Counties. The data was provided by the State University Retirement System (SURS) in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The average monthly pension payment for all the local college retirees — including those who weren’t fully vested — was about $2,825. That comes to $33,900 on an annualized basis.
But the BGA inquiry also found two former college presidents — who oversaw multimillion-dollar budgets, enrollments of tens of thousands of students and hundreds of full-time employees — and a top administrator had the most generous retirement packages by far. They are:
◆ Former Waubonsee Community College President John Swalec, who collects $223,891 a year from SURS. Swalec, the highest paid among Chicago-area community college retirees, has collected a total of $1.94 million since retiring 10 years ago after 27 years of service.
“I did not take advantage of the system,” said Swalec, 77.
Most SURS participants contribute 8 percent of their annual salary to the pension fund, which they receive instead of Social Security. Swalec’s contributions totaled $146,673, according to SURS data.
Swalec believes there’s an unfair perception that retirees are gouging taxpayers when in fact, state lawmakers were the ones who underfunded the retirement system, leading to the state crisis.
◆ Former Triton College President George Jorndt, the second highest paid retiree with an annual pension of more than $215,000. He’s collected a total of $1.86 million after contributing $180,700 over 27 years. Jorndt didn’t return a call seeking comment.
◆ Russell Peterson, a former executive vice president for educational affairs at College of Lake County, who receives just under $197,000 a year and has collected $1.25 million in total. He contributed almost $216,000 during a 31-year period.
“Pensions should be fully funded,” Peterson said. “I know it’s difficult for the state, but they should be funded.”
It’s not just top administrators who see generous annual pensions, which are largely based on the pay employees received at the end of their careers. Among faculty, Peter Remus, a retired mathematics department chairman at Harold Washington College downtown, draws almost $175,000 a year in benefits. So far, he’s collected $581,104 after contributing $183,100. He’s credited with 36 years of service. Remus, who retired in 2008, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
The BGA examination also found that almost 500 retired community college administrators and faculty are drawing $100,000 or more in annual pensions in addition to health care benefits.
Of the 168 faculty and administrators who have earned more than $1 million in total pension payouts, the highest number — 39 — used to work for the College of Lake County in the far northern suburbs. More than 1,400 retirees received total payouts of between $500,000 and $999,000; of them, 520 used to work for City Colleges of Chicago .
The pool of pensioners is expected to expand in the coming years as more community college workers leave their jobs — putting greater strain on the SURS, which also includes employees of Illinois’ public four-year universities. The system is just 46 percent funded.
In the private sector, any pension below 60 percent funded is considered troubled, according to federal pension law.