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Troubled OPS pension fund trustees keep $30,000 in travel budget, despite objections

The trustees of the troubled Omaha Public Schools pension fund will continue to travel to educational conferences and workshops, despite some members’ objections.

The trustees of the Omaha School Employees’ Retirement System (OSERS) had budgeted to spend about $38,000 in fiscal year 2018 for attendance at workshops, conferences and meetings. That’s less than the $46,000 spent in fiscal year 2017.

At their meeting early this month, the trustees reduced the budget for continuing education to $30,000 for the 2019-20 fiscal year, according to information provided by OSERS. The vote on the entire 2019-20 budget, which included the money for travel, was 4-3.

Trustees Donald Erikson, Roger Rea, Lance Purdy and James Ripa voted to approve the budget. DeLayne Havlovic, Scott Herchenbach and OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan voted no.

The $30,000 is only a small portion of OSERS’s overall budget. And minuscule compared to the pension shortfall of $812 million. But some trustees and others feel that spending anything on travel sends the wrong message when the school district budget is being cut to shore up the fund.

Supporters of continuing to fund trustees’ travel to workshops said it is important for members to be educated about pension issues.

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Earlier this year, The World-Herald ran a series looking at the roots of the OPS pension shortfall. The shortfall is forcing OPS to slash its budget to make additional payments to bring the fund back to solvency.

Part of the series highlighted how many of the OSERS trustees consistently traveled to a pair of national teacher retirement fund conferences and workshops. Though one of the nation’s smallest school retirement systems, OSERS would typically have among the largest convention delegations.

OPS’s former and current superintendents have both criticized the travel, with Logan noting that the state, not the trustees, now manages the fund’s investments.

Herchenbach, an actuary who became an OSERS trustee at the end of last year, asked about removing money from the budget for trustees to travel to conferences.

OSERS, he said, has a trust problem with many people in the community, and traveling to conferences contributes to that mistrust.

“By taking out this budget item, it demonstrates our willingness to do something different, and I think it helps build trust,” Herchenbach said. “Maybe that’s not important, but I think it is.”

Herchenbach said he wouldn’t be using any money out of the travel budget to attend conferences.

Havlovic, one of the trustees who represents the district’s certified staff, said travel was the biggest concern he has heard from his OPS colleagues.

Other trustees defended the need for a travel budget, saying it leads to more informed trustees and allows them to talk to peers from around the country.

Erikson said the trustees can’t make decisions based on misconceptions. OSERS, he said, already has reduced staff and done other things to cut costs.

“Don’t let people think we haven’t done things to get things in line, because we’ve certainly done that,” he said.

Trustees give up personal time, vacation time and time away from their families to attend training sessions, where attendees sit in classrooms all day, Erikson said. They’re not investment conferences, he added.

Rea, another trustee, noted that the training budget had been cut.

“I don’t think you want the retirement system to be run by people who are like amateurs,” he said.

OSERS adopted a travel policy in August 2018 modeled on the policy of the Nebraska Public Employees Retirement Systems, said Cecelia Carter, executive director of OSERS.

The policy put limits on what can and can’t be submitted as expenses by trustees and lays out the documentation required to get the expenses approved.

The policy says each trustee and the executive director are permitted to attend two conferences or workshops annually that would require travel-related reimbursements.

Trustee Purdy said he would be open to reducing the number of conferences or workshops to one per year for each trustee.

Like her predecessor as superintendent, Mark Evans, Logan told the trustees that she didn’t think they needed to travel. She said people in the community don’t understand the need to travel since the trustees no longer handle investments.

The Legislature in 2016 transferred investment authority for OSERS to the state’s investment officer. OPS is the only school district in the state with its own pension system.

Evans last year expressed frustration at the trustees’ unwillingness at the time to cut the budget for conferences, which he termed “a free vacation.”

He said he knew the travel budget wouldn’t make a big difference in the scheme of the OSERS shortfall. But at a time the district was cutting $30 million from its budget largely due to extra pension payments, he said, the big budget for travel looked bad.

“We’re cutting millions from the district and I’m letting people go. Can we look to reduce our expenses for the optics? Can we send a message? They won’t do it.”

World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.

How to wreck a pension fund: A World-Herald investigation into what happened at OPS

'You try to keep your sanity': Two months later, flood victims are still living out of campers

Lacey Geer’s two kids grumbled last year about their parents’ long hours at work. Why didn’t they have time to take them camping?

“It’s ironic,” Geer, 34, said. “Now we’re perma-camping.”

Memorial Day weekend, weather permitting, is usually a huge camping holiday for Nebraskans and Iowans eager to jump-start their summers.

But this year, dozens of families like Geer’s are camping — not so they can roast marshmallows and get a taste of the great outdoors — but because they have no other choice.

Jim Harvey, 59, and his family are outdoorsy types. When spring comes, he’s usually hunting the woods for morel mushrooms.

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But as the days drag on, everyone’s starting to get a little sick of camping — of waking up at 5 a.m. to beat the lines for the four campsite showers or the sole washer and dryer, of dumping sewage waste, of driving for miles — spending precious gas money — to get more propane for the stove.

This is not a let’s-unplug-and-get-away-for-the-weekend camping, Harvey said. “That puts a sour taste in my family’s mouth. We’re beginning to dislike it.”

People displaced by disastrous flooding in March have scrambled to find housing wherever they can — and that includes campgrounds and state parks.

More than two months later, roughly 60 flood victims are living out of trailers, tents and RVs in Waubonsie State Park, north of Hamburg, Iowa, and across from Nebraska City.

Untold stories of towns hit by catastrophic floods show the lasting impact of a 'true disaster'

Twenty-five campers remain parked at a city campground in Fremont, Nebraska, normally used only when the rodeo comes to town. Walnut Creek Lake & Recreation Area in Papillion took in about 10 families during March and April and still had a handful of people staying there as recently as this week. More are scattered at campgrounds in Iowa cities like Glenwood and Malvern.

Waubonsie’s newest residents mainly come from small towns pummeled by floodwaters that poured through and over levees, like Hamburg, Pacific Junction, Percival and McPaul. After the flooding, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation waiving the usual camping fees and stay limits at the park. From April to October, the 30 or so RV sites at the park are open only to those affected by flooding, not recreational campers.

Few who lost their homes took refuge in Nebraska state parks, said Jim Swenson, the parks division administrator at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. That’s because several state parks or recreation areas, including Louisville State Recreation Area on the Platte River, Niobrara State Park near the Niobrara River, and Two Rivers State Recreation Area near the Platte and the Elkhorn Rivers, were also damaged or cut off during the historic flooding.

Geer, fiancé Shawn Price, 36, and their two kids, 10-year-old A.J. and 5-year-old Shaye, were on vacation in Colorado when the flood hit. They battled their way home through a blizzard in western Nebraska to find the south end of Hamburg, where they lived in a rental, underwater.

Hamburg Community School District Superintendent Mike Wells quickly hooked them up with a 34-foot camper donated by an Iowa church nonprofit called Bless You Inc., and they moved to Waubonsie.

There is a huge need for housing in flood-ravaged communities. But many homes and rentals have been ruined by water, mud and mold. Some Pacific Junction and Hamburg residents are talking about selling and demolishing their properties through a federal flood buyout program.

In Mills County, Iowa, displaced residents have been staying with family and friends, at Glenwood’s single hotel or in campgrounds, said Rachel Reis, the Glenwood Area Chamber of Commerce executive director.

“Our community does not have a whole lot of affordable housing, unfortunately,” she said. “There’s some rentals, not many. Usually the ones open get picked up pretty fast.”

Price said, “There is nothing. We have money to rent. You can’t find anything. If we could get a house now, we’d gladly take it.”

Tudie Wheeler, 61, lost his home in Hamburg and said looters have been picking through what’s left behind. He and his wife, Cynthia, are disabled — he has diabetes and requires oxygen, and she has heart problems. They live on fixed incomes.

The couple initially stayed in two temporary shelters in Hamburg and have been living at Waubonsie for about 45 days with their two cats.

They fear for their future: Will they find another affordable place to live? They’d like to stay near Hamburg, where their doctors practice.

“If you don’t find a place to live, we’re going to be out in the streets,” Wheeler said.

“Every place in 100 square miles is rented,” said Harvey, who was Wheeler’s neighbor in Hamburg and now in the campground. He’s paying $250 per week to rent a camper and said FEMA aid is helping some.

Wheeler has the date Oct. 31 burned in his brain — that’s typically when water is shut off at Iowa parks to prepare for winter. Alex Murphy, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said that doesn’t mean that campers have to leave — they just won’t have water access.

Temporary trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be placed in Mills and Fremont Counties in Iowa. Federal and local officials are still trying to determine how many people need temporary housing and where trailers could be placed — likely at sites in Glenwood and Council Bluffs.

Price and Geer hope that they can find somewhere to live by Thanksgiving. There might be rentals in larger cities like Omaha, Council Bluffs or Lincoln, but the couple were adamant about not pulling A.J. and Shaye out of school.

Geer describes Wells, the superintendent, as nothing short of saintly: He found the trailer, took residents’ dirty clothes to laundry facilities in nearby Sidney and rerouted school buses so they pick up and drop off kids at the campground. Hamburg, which had a pre-disaster population of about 1,000, has already lost students since the flood. Geer feels a responsibility to pay back the school system for the kindness and support her family has received.

“I don’t want to be the one that causes the school to shut down,” she said.

So they try to create a sense of normalcy for the kids, who have befriended Andrea Schoville’s four daughters, who live in the camper across from them. The younger kids run around in a pack, riding bikes, teasing one another and bouncing on a trampoline nestled in the lush woods.

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On Thursday night, Tessa Schoville, 11, practiced her trumpet, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as she flipped through sheet music spread out on a folding camp chair.

The chilly, rainy spring hasn’t helped families living in close quarters, Geer said — stuck inside, her family burned through most of the new releases at the nearest Redbox movie rental kiosk.

Schoville, 38, her husband and her four girls, ages 9, 11, 13 and 16, are squeezed into their 34-foot camper with three dogs and five cats. The family sold their Millard home and bought an old farmhouse in Percival in 2017. They renovated it, complete with new floors and gleaming appliances, and moved in in October, with her husband commuting to his job in Omaha.

“And now it’s all ruined,” Schoville said.

The house had 16½ inches of water inside, plus 5 feet inside their barn. Water still surrounds the property, so they bought a boat to go back and forth. That has delayed their cleanup and efforts to rebuild and elevate the house.

“You try to keep your sanity,” she said. “There’s days where you cry, days where you don’t.”

Full coverage: floods devastated Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019

After she spilled their story to a sympathetic employee at the Omaha Apple Store at Village Pointe, employees there have collected donations. Several drove down Thursday night to grill burgers and hot dogs for the Waubonsie campers.

That sense of community provides comfort during the darker moments, Geer said. She tries to focus on what the family has gained — new friends, quality time together, a resilient spirit.

“If you just sat and looked at all the losses, you wouldn’t get out of bed,” she said.

Photos: Nebraska flooding viewed from above

Mexican migration to U.S. has plummeted over past 20 years

URUAPAN, Mexico — Not long ago, it seemed as if every young person in this city was heading north, part of an exodus fromMexico that sent millions of people to the U.S. illegally.

But that flow has since slowed to a trickle. Migration from Mexico has dropped 90% over the past 20 years; this year, for the first time ever, Guatemala andHonduras are on pace to surpass it as the leading sources of illegal immigration to the U.S.

The young men and women of Uruapan, which has grown to become the world's avocado capital, are doing something historic:

They're staying here. Thirty-three-year-old Jose Garduno Hernandez works as an agricultural engineer, inspecting avocado orchards that send their vegetables to the U.S.

"Our parents saw no other option but to migrate," he said. "But for us, we see alternatives.

"If I go to the United States, it will be as a tourist."

The dramatic changes in migration flows from Mexico are the product of multiple factors. Among them: the growth of the country's economy, an aging population, more visas for temporary work and increased U.S. border enforcement. Those factors might seem loosely connected, but analysts say the sharp decline reflects a natural pattern that's likely to be repeated in Central America as the populations of Guatemala and Honduras age and as their economies grow.

"That's what history shows from countries all over world," said Princeton University's Douglas Massey, founder of the 37-year study known as the Mexican Migration Project.

"Migration reaches its peak, and then it comes down," he said. "They reach a certain level of development, and then it slows down."

President Donald Trump has suggested that migration is best slowed through enforcement — such as sending troops to the border and building a wall — and changes in America's asylum system. The dramatic collapse of migration from Mexico has received almost no public attention from the White House. But examining what happened here could serve as a useful window into the future of immigration to the U.S.

Fewer than 75,000 Mexicans have been apprehended at the U.S. border so far this year. The number apprehended from Guatemala, a country with less than one-seventh of Mexico's population, is more than 132,000.

In Guatemala, some analysts see a version of what Mexico was two decades ago: A nation approaching its so-called migration hump.

"The same story played out in Italy, Ireland and the Czech Republic many years before it played out in Mexico," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. "And it probably will play out in Central America, too, as the population gets older and the economies expand. But it's not predetermined when or how it will happen."

Jorge Durand, a scholar at the University of Guadalajara, has studied migration from Mexico's Los Altos de Jalisco region for 30 years. When he began, he said, "it was like everyone was leaving for the United States."

But when Durand returned for another round of research last year, he observed "a radical change."

"Mothers there once had at least eight children," he said. "Now they have two. The women are working, so for the first time, families have two incomes, and the region is full of economic opportunities. It's one of the country's biggest egg producers. They make tequila. There are clothing factories."

"The people now say, 'If I can make $400 per month here, why do I need to go to the United States?' The cost of living is a lot cheaper. In the U.S., you can make three times more, but it doesn't help if you need to pay $3,000 for a coyote and an expensive rent."

Here in Uruapan, a city of more than 250,000 people halfway between Mexico City and the Pacific Ocean, people have benefited from one particular segment of the nation's agricultural industry: the boom in avocados.

Eighty-five percent of the 4 billion avocados consumed in the U.S. last year came from Mexico. Mexico's avocado exports were worth $2.4 billion, which has made the city attractive for would-be migrants.

Alejandro Chavez worked in San Francisco for 20 years in construction. He was undocumented, but his children were U.S. citizens.

When he heard about the economic growth in Uruapan, his hometown, he decided to return with his family voluntarily. They bought an apartment building and rent out each of the five units for $200 per month.

"There's no reason for us to be in America when we can make a living here," said Chavez, 38.

The family worried briefly about their 15-year-old son, Pablo, who was more comfortable speaking English than Spanish and who had grown accustomed to his California life. But Pablo's transition has been smoother than expected.

"There's even a Little Caesar's here," Pablo said. "It tastes exactly the same as San Francisco."

In 2000, at the peak of Mexican migration to the U.S., 1.5 million Mexicans were apprehended at the border. Back then, opponents of illegal immigration talked about a flood of Mexicans overwhelming the U.S.

But by 2019, the North American Free Trade Agreement had produced an increase in economic opportunity. Over the last two decades, the average income in Mexico has risen by roughly 20%. Education attainment has gone up by 50%.

Public services such as health care have dramatically improved. Immigrants in the U.S. sent billions of dollars in remittances back to Mexico, which paid for university educations and provided capital for small businesses.

The growth has been uneven. The minimum wage here is just over $5 per day. And a huge portion of the Mexican population still lives in dire poverty — 60% in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, for example.

Many young people from those states are now migrating within the nation to work.

Jose Bacilio, 38, makes about $25 per day picking avocados. He thinks about working in the U.S. — but only with a visa. He spent six months picking berries in Southern California last year on a temporary visa for agricultural workers.

"Most of my friends go with visas, or they don't go at all," he said.

Philip Martin is professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis and editor of Migration News and Rural Migration News.

"The bottom line," he said, "is that we are replacing aging unauthorized farm workers with legal Mexican" visa holders.

But while Mexicans now have greater access to U.S. visa programs, relatively few of those visas are awarded to Guatemalans and Hondurans, in part because those countries are farther from the border and transporting those workers costs more.

The demographic story is also important. In 1995, Mexico's median age was 21. By next year, it will be about 30. Mexico's baby boom is over due to a combination of economic growth and cheaper contraception, thanks in part to the Mexican government's family planning policy. That change has led to a looser labor market and a smaller population of young people, who are seen as the likeliest to migrate.

The dual factors of an improving economy and an aging population have caused declines in migration for hundreds of years in Europe and Asia. It appears that those factors are already slowing the migrant flow out of El Salvador, which has an older population than either Guatemala and Honduras, which are both still in the midst of their "youth bulges." The number of Salvadorans apprehended at the U.S. border fell from 72,000 in 2016 to 31,600 in 2018.

Violence and political instability remain major factors that can influence migration from Central America. But for now, a large number of migrants from Guatemala and Honduras are primarily fleeing poverty.

For those who have studied migration here, the fact that Mexico is no longer the largest source of illegal immigration to the U.S. doesn't come as a surprise. It was always an inevitability, based on how the country was developing.

"A lot of people thought it was a boom that was never going to end," Massey said. "But I could see things unfolding in real time. I could see that the peak had been reached and rates were coming down. There's no sign it will ever return."

As May calls it quits, fervent Brexit backer is likely to take her place

LONDON (AP) — Theresa May ended her failed three-year quest to lead Britain out of the European Union on Friday, announcing that she will step down as Conservative Party leader June 7, triggering a contest to choose a new prime minister who will try to complete Brexit.

"I have done my best," May said in a speech outside No. 10 Downing St. as close aides and her husband Philip looked on, before acknowledging that it was not good enough.

As she concluded her remarks, she struggled to contain her emotions, and her voice broke as she expressed "enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love."

Then she turned and strode through the famous black door of the prime minister's residence.

May will stay on as a caretaker prime minister until the new leader is chosen, a process the Conservatives aim to complete by late July. The new party leader will become prime minister without the need for a general election.

She became prime minister in July 2016, a month after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and her premiership has been consumed by the attempt to deliver on that verdict.

May was brought down by Brexit, but her nemesis wasn't the EU, with which she successfully struck a divorce deal.

She was felled by her own party, which refused to accept it. The plan was defeated three times in Parliament, rejected both by proEU opposition lawmakers and by Brexit-supporting Conservatives who thought that it kept Britain too closely bound to the bloc.

Multiple contenders are already jockeying to replace her in a contest that will see a new leader chosen by Conservative lawmakers and party members. The early front-runner is Boris Johnson, a former foreign secretary and strong champion of Brexit. Other contenders are likely to include House of Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab.

Johnson, whose relentless criticism helped push May out of the door, tweeted: "Thank you for your stoical service to our country and the Conservative Party. It is now time to follow her urgings: to come together and deliver Brexit."

Whether it is Johnson or another contender, the next prime minister is likely to be a staunch Brexiteer who will try to renegotiate the divorce deal, and if that fails, to leave the bloc without an agreement on the terms of departure.

"The person who will replace her will embrace the possibility of a no-deal with alacrity rather than fear," said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham.

Most businesses and economists think that would cause economic turmoil and plunge Britain into recession. Parliament has voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit, though it remains the legal default.

But many Conservatives think that embracing a no-deal Brexit may be the only way to keep the support of voters who opted to leave the EU.

Any attempt to take Britain out of the EU without a deal will be fiercely resisted in Parliament.

May departed with a warning to her successor.

"To succeed, he or she will have to find consensus in Parliament where I have not," she said. "Such a consensus can only be reached if those on all sides of the debate are willing to compromise."