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.