Despite outrage from lawmakers and retirees, Ohio’s School Employees Retirement System board refused to cancel plans to send two trustees to a five-day conference in Hawaii next month and declined to adopt the same travel limits followed by the state’s four other public pension systems.
The nine-member SERS board spent Thursday morning bickering, calling one another out of order and interrupting each other in another debate over conference trips and travel costs.
The board voted 3-4 to cancel the Hawaii trip, with one trustee absent and another abstaining. Valerie Rodgers, director of the School Employees Retiree Organization, told the board that retirees “are furious. I’ve not had one retiree that says there is anything good about these trips.”
SERS Board Chairwoman Beverly Woolridge said the Hawaii trip creates a public perception problem.
Trustee Barbra Phillips, an Ashland City School bus driver who says she needs the Hawaii conference training to perform as a trustee, replied, “I don’t see where perception is in the definition of fiduciary responsibility. I don’t see where perception is in the definition of due diligence.”
Trustees also voted 6-2 in favor of travel policy modeled after those in place at Ohio’s other retirement systems, except that SERS will cap annual per trustee out-of-state travel expenses at $8,000. The other systems set a $6,000 limit.
The more generous cap led Ohio Retirement Study Council Chairman Lynn Wachtmann to say that he expects legislation will be introduced shortly to make sure all the systems have “reasonable” travel policies.
SERS represents 192,000 active and retired school custodians, cafeteria workers and other school support staff and oversees an investment portfolio of $11 billion.
The Dayton Daily News has broken stories that SERS has spent more on travel than any of the other four systems and that Phillips claims reimbursement for overtime she does not work as a school bus driver while on pension fund business.
State law allows public employers to seek reimbursement from SERS for wages paid to trustees while they’re on pension fund business. Ashland invoices SERS for Phillips’ regular missed work hours as well as for field trip overtime. The bus drivers’ union contract states that employees select upcoming field trips with the most senior drivers getting first picks. Phillips is the second most senior driver on the list.
Since October 2009, SERS has reimbursed Ashland City Schools $4,336 for 147 hours of missed overtime for Phillips. Money paid by SERS goes to Phillips. Ashland pays another driver to cover Phillips’ missed field trip runs.
“I don’t sign up for overtime. Seniority rotation is where it is. I don’t see an ethical problem because the law states that wages are to be reimbursed to be made whole. So, therefore, what is it?, six field trips this year. And my salary is $26,000 a year. I do not make a gain from this board seat,” Phillips said on Thursday.
SERS trustees voted 5-3 to go into executive session to discuss personnel matters. The closed door session, requested by Phillips, lasted more than 90 minutes. When trustees returned to open session, Woolridge stated that the board is pleased with the work done by SERS Executive Director Lisa Morris and looks forward to a long relationship. The statement settled the question of whether trustees would try to fire Morris because she publicly advised them against the Hawaii trip.
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Our Columbus bureau reporters first reported on the Hawaii trip planned by the School Employees Retirement System board in early March and have stayed on the story in recent weeks. We have three reporters working full-time in Columbus to bring you the latest news you need on politics, government spending and the upcoming debate over the state budget. Follow us on Twitter at @Ohio_Politics. You can watch video from Thursday’s SERS board meeting at www.DaytonDailyNews.com