Coach, legislators score point toward changing pension rules

Staff Writer

METUCHEN — A soon-to-retire teacher who hopes to continue his decadeslong soccer coaching run is one step closer to his goal.

Legislation sponsored by state Assembly members Patrick Diegnan and Nancy Pinkin (both D-Middlesex) was cleared for introduction to the Legislature by an Assembly panel on June 12. The measure would allow Metuchen’s Ken Graf, along with other retired school faculty, to go on working as coaches in school districts under compensation restrictions without having their pension funds adversely affected, according to representatives of the Assembly members.

The Assembly Education Committee voted unanimously for the bill, and Graf was on hand at the State House to speak before the group.

From here, the legislation must go before the full Assembly for approval. It is due to go before a Senate committee on June 19, he said.

Graf said he is confident about receiving Senate support, because the bill has bipartisan support. Sens. Peter Barnes, a Democrat, and Tom Kean, a Republican, are both backing it.

“It’s a no-brainer there, also,” he said.

Graf will retire from teaching social studies at Edgar Middle School at the end of the school year. Although his plans include caring for his grandson while his daughter returns to her own teaching position, the longtime fixture in the Metuchen School District also planned to dedicate time to continue coaching soccer at Metuchen High School, as he has done for 42 years. He was even willing to forgo the coaching stipend of several thousand dollars and volunteer his services.

However, an obstacle arose when Graf discovered that the state Department of the Treasury Division of Pension and Benefits mandates that he can’t work in the district for 180 days after his retirement. To do so would cause him to lose his pension.

Graf has garnered support not only from government officials, but also from the community as a whole.

“It’s been great,” he said. “It really has.”

Last week, the coach, along with a bevy of advocates, delivered petitions with more than 700 signatures to Gov. Chris Christie’s office, calling for a change in the pension rules. Several Metuchen businesses gathered signatures, and many signed online through the Metuchen Matters website. In addition, Graf’s students jumped on the bandwagon.

Graf said Christie staffers spoke with him at some length, saying they would relay the information to the governor.

“So it worked out great,” he said.

As it stands, the pension rule favors coaches of spring sports, while coaches whose sports kick off in fall are penalized, Graf pointed out.

“A coach with years of experience and dedication as an athletic instructor and teacher is an invaluable resource,” Diegnan said in a press release after the vote. “In Mr. Graf, we have a coach who is willing to return or continue to work in this field. He should be welcomed back. He’s not the only coach out there in this predicament. This is an opportunity to keep outstanding coaches involved in school sports and allow our children to continue to benefit from their expertise.”

Diegnan and Pinkin noted that the bill aims to strike a reasonable solution that will keep devoted coaches with their teams while avoiding abuse of the pension system.

The law would allow a retired member of the Teachers, Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF) to work with the former employer as a coach if the employment begins after the retirement allowance is payable; the retired member had reached retirement age as of the date of retirement, which for most current members of the TPAF is age 60; and the compensation for the employment is less than $10,000 annually.

Graf said the support from his students has felt especially good.

A girl in one of his social studies classes bought him a meaningful souvenir from a recent class trip. The item, a figurine from “The String Doll Gang,” is a likeness of Spartacus — who led an uprising against the Roman government — and was accompanied by an inscription about how one person can make a difference, Graf said.