President led troubled N.J. college for a year and only earned $30K. He fought for more and lost.

Posted Jun 6, 2019

A state appeals court has ruled that a retired college president, who returned to lead the institution as it surfaced from scandal, cannot earn a salary and collect his pension at the same time -- no matter how desperate the situation.

A. Zachary Yamba, who served as president of Essex County College for 29 years before retiring in 2010, was brought back as interim president in 2016. At the time, the institution was reeling from a series of high-profile ousters, including the suspension, and eventual firing, of its former president.

Yamba was initially hired for 90 days for $15,000. But when the Board of Trustees wanted to extend his stay -- and his pay -- they requested the pension board exempt Yamba from re-enrolling in the pension system given the college’s leadership crisis. Re-enrolling would effectively cancel his retirement benefits (and $16,000 monthly pension) throughout the length of his tenure, and force him to reimburse any pension payments made since his re-employment.

College officials argued Yamba was a “critical need” hire, given the state of the institution, whose accreditation was at risk. They argued he should be compensated for his work and experience while collecting the pension he earned over his career.

“Pension is deferred compensation from the time you already worked. He paid into it, he earned it,” Syrion Jack, deputy general counsel for the college, said. “Dr. Yamba should be paid fairly, we want to have the same flexibility that state and local boards (of) education do.”

Retirees who return to a job with pension benefits don’t have to re-enroll in the pension system if they earn $15,000 or less a year or if they are considered a “critical need” employee by a school district or the department of education.

Retirees returning to a teaching position are also exempt from re-enrollment.

The Public Employees’ Retirement System Board of Trustees denied granting Yamba the exemption, ruling the law was clear and it was not their role to enlarge the scope of the exemption to include college administrators.

By then, Yamba was no longer with the college.

Essex County College and Yamba appealed and last month the Appellate Division agreed with the pension board.

“In my heart of hearts, I worked and I should be paid. It was honest day’s work and temporary work," Yamba, who worked as interim president from April 2016 to May 2017, told NJ Advance Media.

Yamba received two $15,000 payments (for 2016 and 2017) and did not get car or travel allowances during his tenure at the school. He said he would have agreed to freeze his pension payments in exchange for a president’s salary (current president, Anthony Munroe, earns $215,000 a year) but the pension board wanted him to return his pension payments for the year to qualify for a salary over the $15,000 yearly threshold.

Jack said it was “unfair to treat that classification of retirees any different from anyone else in the education system.”

“It’s not just an issue for Essex, it’s an issue for any higher education (institution) in the state,” Jack said. “There this concern of the chilling effect it could have on retirees being able to contribute to colleges in this situation.”

He said the college is deciding whether to appeal the matter to the Supreme Court.

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