School Employees Retirement System trustee Barbra Phillips earns overtime pay for field trips and sports team travel as a school bus driver even when she is out of town on pension board business, public records obtained by our Columbus bureau show.
Ashland City Schools allows Phillips to sign up for overtime bus trips even though she is scheduled to be off work for SERS meetings. When she misses the trip, the school district pays another driver to cover it and then asks SERS to reimburse the district for Phillips’ wages and overtime. Money paid by SERS goes to Phillips.
Since October 2009, SERS has reimbursed Ashland City Schools $4,336 for 147 hours of missed overtime for Phillips.
Ohio Retirement Study Council Chairman Lynn Wachtmann, a Republican from Napoleon, called the arrangement “extremely unethical at the very least. Whether or not it’s illegal, that’s a question people need to look at.” He noted that he is discussing it with ethics authorities and county prosecutors.
“It seems like there is a planned effort on her part to pre-schedule her overtime when she knows she won’t be able to work to drive up her salary and other benefits,” he said.
Phillips, who is a long-time Ashland schools employee and president of the local union, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
Email records show that sometimes Phillips doesn’t even sign up for the trips but is credited them anyway. Ashland’s accounts payable clerk Marcia Clark, who is the local union secretary, wrote in a March 4 email to transportation director Doug Shipper says: “Check to see if any field trips would have gone to Barb Phillips on any SERS days please. See below…Jan. 16, 17, 18 Feb. 4, 5, 20, 21.” Shipper wrote back that Phillips was eligible for a Jan. 16 trip.
As a trustee, Phillips is legally required to act in the best interest of the pension system.
Valerie Rodgers of the School Employees Retirement Organization was shocked to learn that SERS is paying for Phillips’ overtime assignments that she doesn’t actually work. “We would certainly want that to be investigated. Absolutely,” Rodgers said. “I simply don’t think that is fair to the retirees.”
Phillips is one of two trustees on the nine-member board who is traveling to Hawaii in May to attend the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems. The SERS board will discuss its travel policy and the Hawaii trip again when it meets Thursday in Columbus.
SERS, which represents 192,558 school bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and retirees, is second smallest of Ohio’s five public pension systems, yet over the past four years it has spent $241,391 for trustees to make 67 out-of-state trips to places such as Las Vegas, New York and Orlando, including $49,553 for Phillips to make a dozen trips.
It is also the only pension system that reimburses employers for trustees’ missed time at work. Last year, SERS spent reimbursing school districts $35,340 for the cost of the board members missing work.
SERS Trustee Catherine Moss retired and represents retirees on the board but she works another job at Lakeland Community College so SERS reimburses the college for Moss’ missed time.
State Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro, who serves on the Ohio Retirement Study Council, said the SERS board deserves more scrutiny and attention from its membership.
“I would think this is a big wake up call for members of the pension system. People need to take responsibility for their system,” she said. “Obviously, the system members need to pay more attention to the people representing them on this board and to the policies and procedures that are being put in place.”
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Our Columbus bureau reporters first reported on the Hawaii trip planned by the School Employees Retirement System board in early March and have stayed on the story in recent weeks. We have three reporters working full-time in Columbus to bring you the latest news you need on politics, government spending and the upcoming debate over the state budget. Follow us on Twitter at @Ohio_Politics