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Trustees for St. Louis teacher pension fund debate whether their travel costs outweigh benefits

(via Flickr/Tracy O)

Some trustees for the St. Louis Public School Retirement System have been traveling extensively on the system’s dime and answered questions at Monday's board meeting about the benefits of such trips.

The seeming infighting among members of the board, which controls the pension fund for about 10,000 current and retired employees, stems from two trustees racking up the bulk of the nearly $117,000 in travel expenses from 2012 to 2016.

The board budgets $35,000 each year out of its roughly $1.5 million in operating expenses for travel to conferences. Those operating expenses are part of the pension fund, which took a big hit in the recession.

The fund has has been rebounding, slowly, but is still below its historic high of $1.15 billion, sitting at $840 million. And retirement payouts doubled to $109 million in the past two decades due to a growing pool of retirees, according to the fund’s executive director Andrew Clark.

School teachers’ union president Mary Armstrong notes that retirees haven’t seen an increase in benefit payments in 11 years, and said that using the pension fund for trustee travel “is going to raise questions” among retirees. But, judging by the trustees’ travel expense reports, eliminating trips would result in a tiny potential dividend for retirees.

Trustee Christina Bennett introduced changes Monday that would cap the amount of travel for trustees to two trips a year, eliminate a $75 per diem for trips, require travel be booked further in advance and have them submit itemized receipts.

“We’ve had violations. I’m trying to close loopholes,” Bennett told the board. But the debate grew heated, even personal, exposing a deep rift between Bennett and board President Joe Clark.

“The point of travel is to meet other trustees,” Clark said, extolling the benefits of networking at conferences.

There are 11 trustees, some of whom are appointed by the school district’s governing board, with the rest being current or former school employees elected by their peers. Trustees are not paid for their work.

Trustees nearly reached their $35,000 travel limit in 2016, with more than half the $30,228 in costs billed by current teacher Sheila Goodwin and retired school administrator Charles Shelton. In 2015, Shelton and Goodwin submitted $15,190 in total travel costs; the other nine members spent $3,614 combined.

Goodwin attended five conferences in 2016, at a cost of $9,702. In 2015, she and two trustees attended a conference in Chicago, but her trip cost $1,100 more than one of her fellow trustees and $500 more than the other.

Goodwin didn’t comment after the meeting and didn’t immediately return a phone call for comment Tuesday.

Shelton has attended the same National Council on Teacher Retirement conference for four years at a cost of more than $2,000 each time. He defended his travel as the only way to learn about the complicated world of retirement investment.

“My job is to do what I can to bring money in, to get my (retirement) check,” Shelton said. He pointed out the board’s travel expenses have been within the budgeted amount, and make up a tiny portion of the overall fund and its operating costs.

Bennett contended that some board members see travel as a perk. Clark said he sees it as the opposite.

“Travel makes you aware of the changes (in the investment industry),” said Clark, who declined to comment after the meeting. “I haven’t traveled in two years. I’m missing out.”

Vice Chairman John Moten tried to keep the peace as the debate tenor escalated, saying: “The more enlightened trustees we have, the better.” He also told the board that there’s likely a middle ground possible between networking and cheaper ways to educate board members.

The changes brought forward by Bennett were not acted on Monday, instead they were sent to the board’s rules committee for more discussion.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.