Another Election Day

Originally posted on Tuesday, April 5, 2005:

As November’s Election Day approached, spurred on largely by a growing frustration with the abysmal state of political discourse, I began writing a series of weblogs, posting them on my Web site and emailing them to a number of friends. Today is another election day of sorts, but only for some on my original mailing list: ballots for positions on the State Teachers Retirement System Board were mailed on Saturday, April 2, and are now beginning to arrive, kicking off an elections process that will continue until May 2.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the State Teachers Retirement System in many of our lives. For those whose principal retirement income comes from STRS, that agency is critical to our future comfort and prosperity. Yet there was a time when most of us, active and retired, thought we could safely ignore STRS business: it was a given that our retirement was in good hands and that we were far better off than those poor souls outside education who had to depend on Social Security for their retired well-being. We could ignore the periodic reports from STRS; we could vote or not vote in the periodic elections for positions on the STRS Board. We could treat the retirement system with benign neglect.

The economic recession of the early nineties showed us that our neglect was hardly benign. As STRS assets plummeted, the System’s contribution to members’ health insurance costs declined as well; and retirees who had become accustomed to a thirteenth check each year found that they couldn’t rely on that annual bonus. Dissatisfaction, discontent, and anger replaced complacency.

In most respects, the interests of retired teachers are the same, no matter whether they retired as union members or management, and regardless of their organizational affiliations while active. But there are some legitimate differences. One such difference concerns the role that administrators, especially superintendents, play in lobbying for legislative change: many observers assume that active superintendents are more sensitive to employer interests and more willing than classroom teachers to push the contribution burden to employees rather than employers. The differences continue after retirement: once retired, administrators are far more able to negotiate customized, lucrative rehiring arrangements with boards of education. Therefore, they may have rather different interests from classroom teachers in the areas of health care and retire-rehire rights.

All of these conflicting interests are crystalized when examining the role of competing organizations. The vast majority of classroom teachers belong to either the Ohio Education Association or the Ohio Federation of Teachers. Ideally, OEA and OFT would have figured out a way to divide the available contributing-member and retired-member seats between them and present a unified front, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Among retired teachers, the situation becomes even murkier. In addition to the retired memberships of OEA, OFT, and administrator organizations, the Ohio Retired Teachers Association (ORTA), which includes members of them all, has often been an important player among retired teachers. OEA dwarfs ORTA and is better-financed, but seems to have been singularly unsuccessful in organizing its retired members. ORTA aggressively and effectively recruits membership among retired teachers, and has a statewide network of county organizations offering periodic meetings and activities. By contrast, OEA-R has no statewide network and offers few activities for the rank-and-file members who do join. Any doubts about OEA’s vulnerability were dispelled in 2001 when the late Marilyn Cross, a respected OEA Past President, lost an election for a retired position on the STRS Board.

In the present STRS Board elections, five candidates are vying for two retired seats. OEA is recommending David Speas; ORTA has recommended David Speas and L. Neil Johnson; and OFT is supporting Jeff Chapman and Teresa M. Green. The fifth candidate is supported only by a group I haven’t mentioned yet: CORE, the “Concerned Ohio Retired Educators.”

CORE came to prominence several years ago when Chillicothe Superintendent Dennis Leone began making charges that STRS was misusing funds. As retirees lost the thirteenth check and paid more for their health care, Dr. Leone was welcomed as a hero by many who were looking for scapegoats. While some STRS practices may have been ill-advised, they constituted far less than 1% of the losses suffered by STRS investments in the economic downturn of the early nineties. But after OEA waffled in supporting its members serving on the STRS Board, Leone and CORE went into attack mode, defeating Eugene Norris, an incumbent contributing member of the STRS Board and member of OEA, in a 2004 election in which fewer than one in five voters bothered to cast a ballot.

Dr. Leone is retired now and a candidate for one of the retired vacancies on the STRS Board. Having lost a retiree seat to an ORTA-endorsed candidate in 2001 and a contributing-member seat to a CORE-endorsed candidate in 2004, OEA faces the possibility that STRS voters will once again elect a member whose main qualification is that he’s not OEA.

I had never met either Dr. Leone or Mr. Speas until recently, when I attended a CORE meeting in Summit County. In response to questions, Mr. Speas provided substantive answers and avoided simplistic solutions; I was impressed by his grasp of a wide variety of issues and his apparent good judgment. By contrast, Dr. Leone showed little knowledge of STRS business outside a few main themes: pampering of STRS staff; excessive capital and operating expenses; luxurious travel by Board members; and OEA domination of the system. In fact, he referred almost exclusively to past grievances that continue to play well with CORE members (like the insensitivity of the past STRS Executive Director and the opulence of a now five-year-old building).

So once my ballot arrives in the mail, for whom will I vote?

I was tempted to cast only one vote, for David Speas: the idea of “bullet voting” is to give one vote to the candidate you care most about and not give anyone else a vote that could bring that person’s total over that of your main candidate. But I believe that Mr. Speas is almost certain to be elected: the dual endorsements of ORTA and even a wounded OEA should translate into victory. If I’m right, my second vote won’t threaten him, and I’m reluctant to let others choose the other winner for me. I read Dr. Leone as a demagogue and an opportunist, and I believe that he would be a divisive force on the STRS Board. I’ve concluded that L. Neil Johnson’s ORTA endorsement gives him the best chance of defeating Dr. Leone; so even though I haven’t met him or the other two candidates, that’s enough reason for me to give him my second vote.

When this election is over, we will have about four years to prepare for the next. That’s four years to contemplate how things could be different and to move in that direction. OEA can start by providing appropriate staff support for its retired organization. It can continue by funding expenses for OEA-R leadership to attend STRS Board meetings, speak on behalf of retired members, and report back to OEA. It can consider how to develop a system in which it continues a meaningful, valuable relationship with members after they retire. It can explore a relationship with OFT which respects the legitimate interests of both organizations and presents a united front. With luck, with this election, OEA can stop the bleeding and learn how to fight a better fight another day.

Author: StgCoach

Retired teacher and public education leader. Pastoral musician, community activist, parliamentarian, and photographer.