Retired educators participating in the Fulton County Schools pension fund are concerned about a change in the makeup of the district’s employee pension board approved last week by the board of education.
The school board voted 7-0 Jan. 17 to approve a resolution to change the structure and makeup of the pension board, which manages the pension fund for all retired district employees, currently about $30 million. That board currently includes two retired educators elected by employees and retirees participating in the pension plan, but if changes are approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, those representatives would be nominated by the pension board but appointed by the school board.
“I am worried that in the future, changes can be made to the plan that would affect both current and future retirees since our representation will be effectively nonexistent,” June Fortson, a retired math teacher and assistant principal, wrote in an email.
In an earlier phone interview, she said, “There are many, many employees who do not know about this and will be affected by it. Once it moves into the school system, there is always the possibility that the funds will be co-mingled. Our current [school] board and superintendent is one thing, but years down the road, who knows what will happen?”
Retirees also said they were surprised and upset they were not notified of the vote until the day before the meeting, adding they did not have time to sign up for public comment and voice their opinion.
“The three major concerns about it are the transparency, communication and having a chance to have an input,” said Mary Lee, a retired school psychologist who also worked as a school administrator and coordinator. “The biggest thing is the appearance of impropriety because the potential is there, whether they [the school board] have the best intentions or not. Some may not be conscientious about it. … Right now there’s a check and balance.”
Jeanne Wood, a retired elementary school principal, is the pension board’s current chair and a past president of the North Fulton Retired Educators’ Association.
“I can’t speak for the association, but I know that there was great surprise that this resolution came up so unexpectedly and was passed by the school board so quickly,” Wood said.
Dawna Godfrey, a retired elementary school teacher and the association’s current president, said the school board has retirees’ “best interests at heart” in making the changes to the pension board but wants “our legislators to put back our elected retirees on that plan.”
“[The school board’s] plan is to streamline the cost, streamline the information and get everything working as a well-oiled wheel. But they took out the elected retirees,” Godfrey said. “What we want to do is to make sure we are represented, that no one in the future, a different school board down the way, would still value the retirees on that board, keep them on there. It’s a checks and balances of power.”
School board president Linda Schultz, who with school board vice president Linda McCain also sits on the pension board, said no retirees spoke during the public comment portion of last week’s school board meeting. Schultz said she met with three retirees after the meeting, including Lee, but none since then. In an email Saturday, McCain wrote she had not gotten any phone calls or emails from retirees since the resolution was approved, adding, “I would support letting the pensioners elect their own representative.”
Schultz said a legal issue has delayed the school board’s efforts to send letters to retirees about the pension board changes, but a copy of the letter has been posted to the district’s website (www.fultonschools.org).
The pension board changes were made, she said, because “the current administrative structure is cumbersome, inefficient and causes confusion.”
“We asked the superintendent [Robert Avossa] to look at possible solutions or alternatives, and this is modeled after Gwinnett [County]'s administration of the pension fund,” Schultz added.
When asked why the school board voted so quickly on the resolution, she said, “It’s just a resolution that starts the process. There will be a bill introduced, and it will work through the legislative process.”
In an email Sunday, Schultz wrote, "the bill does not indicate how the pension board selects nominees. They may choose to conduct an election."
She also said the school board is open to meeting with more retirees to help explain the changes and possibly restoring the “elected” language to the pension board makeup, adding she is frustrated the letters could not go out as early as last Friday.
District 50 State Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, who will sponsor the bill crafted by the school board based on the resolution, will meet individually with Godfrey and at least one other retiree Monday at the capitol building down-town to discuss the matter.
“I have submitted it to legislative counsel to put it in the proper format,” Riley said Friday. “I have not decided on the timing of the filing. I’m still conferring with other members of the county delegation before taking any action.”
She declined to comment on possibly changing the wording of the bill until after meeting with the retirees.
A closer look:
The Fulton County Schools pension board manages current and retired employees’ pension fund. Under the current format, it has seven members:
o two current district educators or employees who are elected by school system employees and also participating in the pension plan
o two retired district educators or employees who are elected by school system retirees and also participating in the pension plan
o two school board members
o one Fulton County resident who is selected by the pension board
Under the proposed format, the pension board would have eight members:
o the district superintendent, ex officio, who shall not have a vote
o the district chief financial officer, ex officio
o the district executive director of fiscal services, ex officio
o two current district educators or employees nominated by the pension board and appointed by the school board and also participating in the pension plan
o two retired district educators or employees nominated by the pension board and appointed by the school board and also participating in the pension plan
o one school administrator within the district nominated by the pension board and appointed by the school board and also participating in the pension plan
Sources: Information provided by Fulton County Schools, retirees and the bill based on the school board’s resolution.