COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio’s teacher retirement system paid out $10 million in staff bonuses the same year its pension fund lost over $5 billion, according to updated figures released Thursday.
Two months after the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio (STRS) Board awarded its 100-member investment staff with hefty performance bonuses, the pension fund announced its net investment losses totaled $5.3 billion in the fiscal year ending in June 2022 — a 75% increase from the $3 billion in investment losses initially calculated, according to a copy of STRS’ unaudited financial statements.
“It was bad enough that STRS rushed to award $10 million in staff bonuses after only losing $3 billion last year,” Robin Rayfield, executive director of the Ohio Retired Teachers Association, said in an email. “With this new data, we know now that STRS actually lost $5.4 billion last year and still awarded millions of dollars in bonuses to almost 100 bureaucrats.”
In August, the board voted 9-2 to approve the bonuses because its investment staff outperformed the board’s performance benchmarks, according to STRS spokesperson Nick Treneff. The bonuses — which have been awarded every August for the past three years in accordance with STRS policy — are part of a five-year performance model, he said.
Some retired teachers in Ohio said the hefty bonuses awarded to investors felt like a slap in the face to retirees who have not received a cost of living adjustment in their pensions for years. The board, however, approved a one-time 3% COLA for retirees in May.
At Thursday’s meeting, Rayfield demanded STRS leadership return the $10 million in bonuses he claimed were “seemingly approved on misleading and incomplete financial data” that at the time indicated $3 billion in losses.
“Everyone in the world knew that the numbers STRS used were way too good to be true and didn’t justify these bonuses,” Rayfield said. “But given that the real financial loss was more than 75% bigger, some of these board members owe Ohio teachers an apology and a return of their money.”
But Treneff disagreed with Rayfield’s claims that the board “rushed” its performance-based bonuses and delayed reporting the pension fund’s losses.
The sudden shift from $3 billion in losses to $5.3 billion in losses, Treneff said in an email, is because those numbers are calculated on a monthly basis, not annually, using fair market values and daily cash flows — meaning reported losses in any given fiscal year may change month-to-month as recalculations are made.
And, like all other investors in private market assets, the STRS investment team receives “lagging valuations” that occasionally arrive after the pension fund submits its annual financial reports to comply with its mid-to-late September deadline, Treneff said. He cited a July Pensions & Investments report that found private market returns are lagging by three months, which Treneff called “consistent industry practice.”
“For annual financial reporting purposes, the cut-off is typically in mid-to-late September and allows for adjustments to bring private market valuations current to the financial report fiscal year end,” Treneff said. “Certain market valuations will lag even beyond our annual financial reporting cut-off.”
Former STRS Board Chairman Robert McFee, who was voted out of the role in May, told NBC4 that through the pension fund’s internal asset investment, STRS investors save Ohio teachers about $117 million each year.
“Our investment staff is composed of incredible, hardworking, dedicated professionals,” McFee said. “And we at STRS do a compensation study every two years to make sure that they are paid adequately for their service.”
It’s unclear whether STRS plans to restore retired teachers’ annual COLAs beyond a one-time increase, but retired and active teachers alike continue to express their frustrations over the pension system’s management, including Dean Dennis, a member of the ORTA who founded a “watchdog” website committed to tracking STRS.
Dennis told NBC4 in February that STRS board members breached their fiduciary responsibilities to retired teachers by stripping them of annual COLA payments.
“I didn’t plan on this. I worked 35 years, my wife worked 35 years,” he said. “We did everything right with our money, and now it has just been stolen from us.”