When Kenneth J. Connolly announced last year that he was stepping down as the superintendent of the Lake Shore School District in mid-July, it was common knowledge that he was taking a job in a Westchester County school district. He even mentioned it in the letter he sent to the Lake Shore School Board president in March.
But in that letter, Connolly, 54, at the time, said he was "retiring" from Lake Shore. And that distinction netted him an extra $16,529 when it came time to cash in unused vacation and sick days, district records indicate.
"I retired my position from the district. Retirement could mean ceasing the position in the district," he said Friday in a phone interview from his office in the Lakeland School District. "I'm saying I retired my position as superintendent or terminated my position, meaning the same thing."
Connolly's word choice caught the eye of state auditors, who recently spent a few months reviewing the district's financial records. He acknowledged that auditors have questioned the use of "retirement," since he was not of retirement age and did not file retirement papers with the state -- but did go on to work in another district.
Connolly was paid $154,466 annually at Lake Shore; his Lakeland salary was reported as $199,700 a year.
When his Lake Shore contract was negotiated in 2002, Connolly said, he and the School Board understood that the clauses entitling him to additional pay for unused time off "upon retirement from the district" meant leaving for any reason.
However, William J. Connors, who was board president throughout Connolly's nearly 10-year term in Lake Shore, said board members thought "retirement" indicated the end of his career. "Did we all think he was going to retire in the sense of retiring? Probably yes," Connors said. "I guess the other legal question is, was he still entitled to all that stuff? I don't have the answer to that. We thought he was retiring, like when you retire."
The board voted unanimously at the end of March to accept Connolly's "letter of resignation for the purpose of retirement," according to district records.
The "retirement" word choice wasn't the only thing regarding Connolly's departure that caught the state auditors' attention.
They also questioned his decision to start in Lakeland on July 1 -- two weeks before his termination date in Lake Shore, he said.
Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman for the state comptroller's office, declined to comment because the audit, which began in November, has not yet been completed.
Connolly said he decided to extend his time in Lake Shore through the middle of July so that he could return on July 11 for the Lake Shore Golf Scholarship Tournament at the Tri-County Country Club, an event he organized for the past six years.
"I told them to make sure they charged me those eight or nine days as vacation days because it was common knowledge I wasn't going to be there," he said.
He added: "In hindsight, would it have been better to have a buyout clause that said 'upon resignation?' Yes, it would have. When the auditors did the audit in the district, they questioned that."
Connors, who left the board June 30, said he did not know Connolly would not be at Lake Shore through the end of his contract. "I didn't know the official date they hired him down there," Connors said.
District attendance records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicate Connolly was paid through July 8, 2005. The records do not indicate that vacation time was used for any days in July 2005.
Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey said the days Connolly was paid for in July were paid as vacation days, but because of an apparent clerical error, that was not documented.
Because Connolly waited to leave Lake Shore until July 15 -- two weeks into the new fiscal year -- he accrued 12 additional days sick time, which added another $1,100 onto his lump sum buyback.
He received a total of $58,214 for his unused vacation and sick time, with about one-fourth of that as a result of the "retirement" clause in his contract. The lump-sum drove Connolly's gross pay up to $145,325 for six and a half months work in Lake Shore in 2005, according to his W-2.
Connolly emphasized he believes his contract entitled him to everything he received. If the auditors determine that something was inappropriately paid to him, Connolly said, he would repay it.
"I want to make sure everybody understands everything I did was up front," he said.