School officials get pension boost 'payback'

2 soon-to-retire Downers Grove administrators receive thousands in pay raises, bonuses

Monday, September 27, 2010

Two soon-to-retire administrators in Downers Grove High School District 99 received pay raises and bonuses that will boost their pensions, according to records released last week.

The two administrators are the only senior district officials who will get increases because a pay freeze went into effect for the district's top administrators last year.

"There's a little bit of a payback for years of service," said District 99 Controller Mark Staehlin. "Not everyone gets one." Some high school deans and department heads also will still see modest salary increases.

According to records, Mary Biniewicz, assistant superintendent for student learning, will make $150,330 this year, and Downers Grove North High School Principal Maria Ward will bring in $173,085.

Records released last week indicate Ward received a $19,763 raise, a 12.8 percent pay bump. Ward, who came to the district about six years ago, did not receive a retirement payment on top of her salary increase this year, but she was awarded a $30,664 retirement payment by the district last year.

Biniewicz, who received a 6 percent raise of about $8,500 — the maximum allowed under a state cap — was also given an $18,310 retirement payment that will be added on top of her salary boost. Last year, Biniewicz was given a $16,507 retirement payment in addition to her salary.

It is not clear if either administrator received raises last year because records from prior years were not made immediately available by school district officials.

Pay increases and annual payments that boost pension benefits for administrators and teachers in the final years of their career are common practice, Staehlin said. The idea, he said, is that in order to hire highly qualified talent, the district has to be comparable to other school systems in the region.

Contrary to popular belief, doling out raises to boost pensions is not a common practice in most places, said Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. That said, Martire says the practice of pension bumping is especially common in affluent areas like the collar counties.

Under a 2005 state law intended to rein in pension boosting, any benefits received because of end-of-career pay bumps that exceed 6 percent must be paid by the district instead of the state pension fund.

While Ward's 12.8 percent pay increase is more than double the Illinois cap's limit, District 99 Superintendent Mark McDonald said the district will not have to pay a penalty because her contract was negotiated before the cap took effect.

"The prime motivating factor behind the change in the law for school districts was that too many people thought it was 'free money' just because the state was paying for the end of career pension boosts and not the local taxing body," said state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat who sponsored the 6 percent cap.

District spokeswoman Faith Behr said, compared with similar school districts, District 99 salaries are about average — not less than what some districts pay but also nowhere near the top end of the spectrum.

"We're not setting the market here. We're at or below the market." Behr said.