New STRS Chief Approves Bonuses

May 11, 2004 ( - The new head of the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) - already hit hard by a lavish spending scandal - has okayed 371 employee bonuses worth $3.85 million.

Damon Asbury, the new STRS executive director, said Tuesday he will recommend to the retirement system board next week that the payments be made to investment and noninvestment employees for work done in the 2002-2003 fiscal year, the Associated Press reported.

Asbury said he felt the system had to make the move legally because employees participated in the program expecting to earn bonuses for meeting “stretch goals,” which included attending workshops and keeping spreadsheets of expenses. Asbury said the decision was also supported by an Ohio attorney general opinion late last year that a valid bonus contract existed between the system and employees.

Asbury’s announcement brought an almost immediate negative reaction from a sponsor of legislation to reform the state’s five pension systems. “Oh my God,” state Representative Michelle Schneider, a Republican, said. “They just don’t get it. The nightmare continues. This is not a step in the right direction. It absolutely hurts the effort to restore faith and trust in the system.”

John Lazares, a Warren County superintendent who was just elected to the board but will not take office until September, wondered about the timing of the announcement (See  Buckeye State Teachers Kick Out STRS Chairman ). He beat incumbent board member and chairman Eugene Norris by less than 300 votes Saturday. He said the margin would have been even greater had this news come out sooner.

“I ran on the issue that we have to rebuild confidence and respect for the system,” he said. “I know this will devastate members. I don’t support it.”

The bonuses are from a program that was suspended in the aftermath of revelations about excessive spending last year.

Asbury’s predecessor, Herb Dyer, resigned last August in the face of heavy criticism over spending of millions of dollars on bonuses, artwork and travel at the same time that assets plunged (See  Dyer Steps Down From Ohio STRS Post ).

The system serves more than 410,000 active and retired educators with assets of about $54 billion.