Ohio teachers at pension fund meeting welcome special audit

Suzanne Laird holds a sign reading "Stealing Teachers' Retirement Savings"
Suzanne Laird holds a sign that she says she’s brought to STRS board meetings for years, after the board voted to suspend cost of living adjustments for benefit recipients. STRS says it pays out over $7 billion in benefits each year to more than 152,000 retirees, survivors and others. [Karen Kasler / Statehouse News Bureau]

News that state auditor Keith Faber’s office will be performing a special audit into the state teachers’ pension fund went over big with educators at Thursday’s monthly meeting of the pension fund board.

The audit was first reported by the Ohio Public Radio Statehouse News Bureau.

The State Teachers Retirement System manages $94.5 billion in assets for half a million teachers. Some retired educators hired an investigator to look into the fund’s performance and fees after their cost of living adjustment was eliminated in 2017.

Suzanne Laird retired after 30 years of teaching. She said she still works as a substitue teacher in the Worthington City Schools to pay for higher health care premiums.

She's been coming to STRS board meetings for years. On Thursday, she told the board that they should be "ashamed" for not listening to teachers who were upset about the loss of the COLA and about their concerns over fees and money manager bonuses.

“You thought we didn’t know anything. You called us a bunch of malcontents. And yet now the state auditor has stepped up," Laird said.

Teachers in the room for the STRS meeting burst into applause when Laird finished her public comments to the board.

The auditor’s office said it got "numerous complaints" after former SEC attorney Ted Siedle was hired by retired teachers to look into the fund. Siedle's Benchmark Financial Services has done similar reviews of pension funds in other states.

Siedle’s report said STRS “has long abandoned transparency, choosing instead to collaborate with Wall Street firms to eviscerate Ohio public records laws and avoid accountability to stakeholders. Predictably, billions that could have been used to pay teachers retirement benefits have been squandered over time as transparency has ceased to be a priority.”

STRS said in its response, which was shared at the board's August meeting, that Siedle's allegations are "baseless" and the fund has outperformed the market over the last decade.

STRS also notes that Siedle is not an accountant or an auditor, and that his conclusions about the Ohio teachers' pension fund are similar to reports he's written about other states when it comes to transparency and investment fees.

Siedle said in response that "No target of any investigation I've ever done has ever agreed with my findings. And if they did, I'm probably not doing my job."

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

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