FORT KENT, Maine — Concerned about long-term changes to the state’s retirement system that are being considered in Augusta, the superintendent of AOS 95-SAD 27 will retire at the end of school year and then reapply for the position.
Dr. Patrick O’ Neill, who oversees the St. John Valley school system, said Friday that he made his plans to retire on June 30 known during a school board meeting Thursday evening in Wallagrass. O’Neill, who is 62, said that his decision was based solely on what is transpiring in Augusta.
“I have been following the legislation that proposes making cuts to the state retirement system,” O’Neill said. “With the cuts that they are talking about, I believe it is to my advantage to retire. I plan on reapplying for the position and, hopefully, the board will consider rehiring me. If not, I plan on working full time elsewhere.”
AOS 95 is the alternative organizational structure formed when SADs 27 and 10 combined. The member towns are Fort Kent, St. Francis, St. John Plantation, New Canada, Wallagrass, Eagle Lake and Winterville. O’Neill has been superintendent since 2007. He has been involved in the education field for 39 years, 26 of it at the administrative level. He served as principal of Lewiston High School before becoming assistant principal at Fort Kent Elementary School.
Hearings began last week on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed $6.1 billion budget package for the two-year period beginning July 1.
LePage is recommending that the retirement age for most state employees increase from 62 to 65. He also has proposed continuing the freeze on cost-of-living adjustments for current retirees and capping future increases at 2 percent, down from the current maximum of 4 percent. Additionally, state employees would be required to contribute another 2 percent from their paychecks toward the pension system to help pay down the estimated $4.4 billion unfunded liability. State workers now chip in 7.65 percent of their salary to the pension system.
Administration officials estimate the pension reform proposals will save more than $400 million in the coming two-year budget cycle and reduce the current $4.3 billion unfunded pension liability by more than $2 billion over the long term.
If LePage’s proposals are accepted and passed by state lawmakers this session, the measures would take affect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns. O’Neill expects to be retired by then so the changes would not affect his pension.
O’Neill said that the proposal concerns him, and he believes that others are feeling the same way.
“I think that a lot of people like me who are between 60 and 62 years old are taking a hard look at their futures,” he acknowledged. “The variables being tossed around in Augusta are not good.”
State employees protested the proposed cuts at the State House last week.
The superintendent said that the board was “shocked” by his decision to retire, but he said that he believes they understand his position.
“I would like to think I have a good relationship with the board, and we have done some amazing things for the district,” he said. “My position already has been posted in-house, and I know that there are some worthy candidates who will apply. Right now, I am going to continue on in my position and wait and see what happens. I feel good about the decision, and I feel it was the best choice for myself and my family.”
O’Neill earned $94,396 in 2009, according to maineopengov.org.
O’Neill’s decision is not uncommon. According to state statistics, more than 1,000 educators in Maine have retired and then returned to work in the state’s school systems. The educators all get paid twice — once for the work they continue to do and once from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, which administers their retirement benefits.