By the Editorial Board
The St. Louis Public School Retirement System is an $840 million fund managed by an 11-member board of trustees who receive no stipends or salaries and meet in full about six times a year. They seldom make news, but a recent look at some trustees’ travel expenses suggested a need for policy changes, limits and transparency.
Retirement fund officials have about a $1.5 million operating budget, and spent nearly $117,000 on travel since 2012, including $32,381 last year. This is not an unreasonable amount, but operating expenses come from the pension fund, which has been struggling since the economic recession in 2007-2009.
Meanwhile, as the pool of retirees has grown, retirement payments have doubled to $107 million a year over the past 20 years. About 5,000 retired teachers are in the system. At its highest point, the fund had revenue of $1.15 billion, and now has about $840 million.
Some trustees are pressing for more accountability for travel expenses, reports the Post-Dispatch’s Kristen Taketa. They say that just two trustees account for half the trips taken by the entire board over the past five years. Rick Sullivan, also president of the school district’s appointed Special Administrative Board, is the sole trustee who has not traveled in that time.
The board has loose rules governing travel; trustees aren’t even obliged to share what they learn on their board-funded trips. Concern that some trustees are abusing the travel privilege has led to calls for more control and greater transparency, both excellent ideas.
One trustee expressed doubts about the trips benefiting the board, and complained that sometimes as many as half the trustees go to the same conference. Individual trustees’ bills for the same trip can differ by hundreds of dollars.
Trustees can draw cash advances of $75 a day for their travel and aren’t asked many questions about how it’s spent. Reimbursements for expenses of less than $25 don’t require receipts. Trustees can attend up to four conferences and workshops annually without board approval. Some have charged the retirement fund for hotel stays exceeding the days of the conference.
Other perks include reimbursements for upgrades and extras, such as liquor and room service. Critics also say trustees don’t try to save money when booking travel, and cite airfare purchased as late as two weeks before a conference.
These policies wouldn’t pass muster at most private companies, but the trustees are spending teachers’ retirement money. The teachers and retirees should insist on better controls. Mary Armstrong, head of the teachers’ union, says retiree benefits haven’t increased in 11 years and that the travel budget will raise questions.
Trustees should tighten rules on travel, including capping the travel budget. Those cash advances should be eliminated. Trustees should be obliged to account for their time.