COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – “The governor is pouring jet fuel onto the fire.”
That’s what the director of the Ohio Retired Teachers Associations said about a shake-up on the board of the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS), which manages a $90 billion pension fund.
Last week, Pat Davidson, a reform-minded teacher, was elected to the board in a landslide vote, tipping the balance of power 6-5 to progressive reformers, but that’s when Gov. Mike DeWine stepped in.
DeWine removed Wade Steen, another reformer, from the board and appointed G. Brent Bishop, according to a list of state appointees released Friday. This is the second time DeWine has appointed Bishop to a high-level position in education: in December 2021, he appointed Bishop to the University of Toledo board of trustees.
“There are 30,000-plus of us,” said retired teacher Pam Million. “We are all voters and we care about our retirement system and we care to receive the benefits that we were told we were going to receive. This action is a direct slap in our face.”
Million is one of tens of thousands of retired and active teachers who, during the last five STRS board elections, choose candidates who are demanding change.
Hours before Davidson’s landslide victory was confirmed, DeWine’s office called Steen, who has served on the board for the last seven years.
“(DeWine’s office) said, ‘I’m sorry to make this phone call, but I’m calling to ask for your resignation,’” Steen said of the call. “And I said, ‘Resignation?’ I was kind of like… I didn’t know what she meant.”
Steen refused to resign but was told one day later that his appointment was revoked. Angry retirees immediately took to social media, accusing the governor of protecting the status quo.
“I do know that I’ve asked a lot of questions about benchmarks, about performance, about our investments and alternatives,” Steen said. “Our investments in hedge funds, the amount of fees we pay, the performance we get, have all raised questions.”
In a statement, DeWine insisted he agrees with teachers who voiced anger over STRS investments and the need for cost-of-living adjustments and has also questioned staff bonuses and raises.
DeWine said he removed Steen because Steen missed three meetings since September and partially attended three other meetings, with DeWine saying members cannot be a voice for teachers if they miss meetings.
“If you look at my attendance over the seven years, it’s as good, if not better than, others,” Steen countered. “Have I missed a couple of meetings in the last six months? Yes, I have. I’m not going to deny that. Have I had to attend some remotely? Yes, I have, as have other board members.”
The Ohio Retired Teachers Association is starting a legal fund to help Steen fight his ouster, and in a statement to its members, said, “The attempt to manipulate the composition of the board hours before a contested board seat was announced reinforces broken trust in the pension system.”
“To think that the corruption goes that deep really, really concerns us,” Million said. “And that politics and money may have been behind this move, we’re appalled at that. Or you were angry, but we won’t stop fighting. I’m telling you. We are a powerful force to be reckoned with. And if they think that we’re going to go quietly into the night, they’re wrong.”
“I know you’ve talked with many teachers who watch the meetings,” Steen said. “They see what I do. They see how I conduct myself. They see me trying to ask questions and advocate for more benefits for our retired teachers, so it hurts.”
Managers of Ohio’s $90 billion public teacher pension fund are considering a larger round of bonuses for its investment staff despite retired educators’ concerns. At a monthly meeting in April, a presentation to the board proposed setting aside $11.1 million of its $115 million budget in 2024 for performance-based bonuses for the investment staff.
Julie Sellers, an STRS board member, called the boost in proposed bonuses worrisome for a fund that lost $5.3 billion in returns in fiscal year 2022 and “out of touch with reality of what teachers want.”
The teacher’s watchdog group was quick to report that Bishop donated $100,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association. A DeWine spokesperson said the political donations had no bearing on Bishop’s two appointments.