School Police Officers Would Get Sweeter Pension Terms Under Boston City Council Proposal

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Boston city councilors want school police officers in the city to be able to maximize their pensions at age 60 instead of 65.

All 13 city councilors this week supported the change, which city officials said would increase the city’s budget in fiscal year 2021 by $375,000 and the actuarial accrued liability to $1,272,000. But they described those figures as tiny compared to the city’s overall pension expenditures.

The city’s approximately 75 school police officers are not fully sworn cops, but they are classified as special police officers by the Boston Police Department, with power to arrest and to confiscate weapons. They carry handcuffs and Mace, but not guns.

They are currently classified as Group 1 for state pension purposes, along with the least hazardous government jobs such as clerks and administrative staff, with the ability to maximize their pensions at age 65. (Or, for those hired after state pension reform took effect in April 2012:  age 67.)

The change would classify them as Group 2, which is associated with more hazardous duty like probation officers and electricians. That max-your-pension retirement age is 60. (Or 62 for those hired after April 2012.)

“What usually happens is you can retire at an earlier age,” said Timothy Smyth, executive officer of the Boston Retirement System, during a public hearing March 28 of the city council’s Committee on Government Operations. “ … What I can say is if we do this, they’re eligible for the maximum pension earlier.”

School police officers say they deserve the improved pension status because their job is more hazardous than that of clerical workers.

Sergeant Kirk Garrison, president of the Boston School Police Superior Officer Federation, said during the March 28 hearing that since he started in 2002 he has sustained injuries on the job to his back, hands, and head, needing on occasion treatment at a hospital.

“The officers work unarmed, unlike other school officers in surrounding towns. The crucial omission has resulted in countless injuries to officers, in some cases requiring surgery and months of rehab,” said Sergeant Julio Torres, vice president of the superior officers union.

Torres said school police officers frequently confiscate knives, and that they have on occasion confiscated brass knuckles, tasers, and guns.

Garrison works at Brighton High School now, where he also coaches soccer and softball. He said that when he was working at East Boston High School officers apprehended a trespasser who had a loaded 9-millimeter gun. He said he was also involved in stopping Charlestown High School students from getting into the gym of East Boston High School, one of whom had a gun.

The city council voted 13-0 on Wednesday, April 3 to approve the measure.

City councilor Frank Baker, the sponsor, said school police officers have earned the more advantageous pension tier.

“I believe they deserve to be included in Group 2 among many of their peers in law enforcement,” said Baker, who represents District 3, which includes most of Dorchester and portions of South Boston and the South End, on the city council floor Wednesday, according to the city’s online video library. “… A lot of the guys, probably – men and women – around my age, the thought of rolling around on the street or the sidewalk with an 18-year-old kid, you know, the shoulders, the arms, everything – I think that these guys are doing a good job and we should pass this, send it over to the mayor for him to sign, and then up to the State House.”

Councilor Ed Flynn, who represents District 2, in South Boston, said he encountered school police officers when he worked as probation officer for 10 years and as a substitute teacher at South Boston High School and Charlestown High School.

“They’re very professional, they’re hard working, they’re highly trained. But they’re also great ambassadors to our city and to our students, and to the school department, as well. … These school police officers really deserve this,” Flynn said on the city council floor Wednesday.

The Boston school police officers have roots in the hiring of security officers wearing blazers in 1978 during high tensions amid court-ordered busing designed to desegregate Boston’s public schools. In 1980, they became known as school police officers. They are under the jurisdiction of the Boston Police Department, which trains them.

The average age of Boston school police officers is 46, Smyth said March 28. The average years on the job currently is 16.

Three current officers would immediately be affected by the change in pension status, Garrison said.

For the change to occur, Mayor Marty Walsh would have to sign the home rule petition, and then the state Legislature would have to approve it. A similar proposal by Councilor Baker in 2015 failed.

One observer said the Boston City Council isn’t the right place to discuss the pension status of school police officers.

“As a benefits matter, this conversation should take place at the bargaining table, not in City Council,” said Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent organization that analyzes data and policy to try to promote efficiency in government, in an email message to New Boston Post.

State pensions for state and municipal workers are based on three factors:  age, years of service, and, for pre-2012 hirees, the average of the highest three years of base salary.

Age determines the multiplier applied to years of service to determine the percentage of the top-three-years-average base salary that the employee can get in pension. A maximum pension that does not cover a spouse in case the employee dies first (known as “Option A”) is 80 percent of the top-three-years average.

Currently, at age 65 a Group 1 municipal employee (such as a Boston school police officer) earns a factor of 2.5 to multiply by the number of years of service to get to the maximum 80 percent. So a 65-year-old with at least 32 years of service can earn 80 percent of the average of the top three years of his base salary in pension, since 2.5 times 32 equals 80.

A Group 2 employee earns the factor of 2.5 at age 60 instead of age 65. That makes it easier to retire earlier and also increases the number of years in retirement to receive a pension, so it’s a better deal for the employee while costing the city and state more money.

(A Group 4 employee, such as a municipal police officer or firefighter, earns the 2.5 factor at age 55.)

Employees who started on or after April 2, 2012, however, have less favorable pension terms, because of a pension reform bill passed by the state Legislature in 2011 designed to save the state money and improve the viability of the public pension system.

In the new system, the maximum 2.5 factor is available two years later — to Group 1 employees at age 67, to Group 2 at age 62, and to Group 4 at age 57.

In addition, the pension is based on a percentage of the average five years of base salary instead of three. That change was designed in part to discourage supervisors from giving favored public employees massive increases in their base salaries shortly before they retire as a means of spiking their pensions.

The city of Boston has a significant unfunded pension liability – about $1.51 billion as of January 1, 2018, the most recent date figures are available.

Segal Consulting’s Actuarial Valuation and Review for that date found that the funded percentage is 76.9 percent (or $5,038,741,926), while the unfunded percentage is 23.1 percent (or $1,512,224,642), Kocher said.

City officials say they are on schedule to reduce the unfunded pension liability to zero by 2025, assuming a return of 7.75 percent on the city pension system’s investments.