The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Pension perk under scrutiny

Published: Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 - 10:51 am

Top administrators at Twin Rivers Unified enjoy a perk considered rare for public school employees: They don't have to pay any portion of their pension contributions.

The district has given this benefit to its top brass since it formed in 2008 in a merger of four north Sacramento area districts. Since then, Twin Rivers has extended the perk to 13 past and present administrators.

Last school year alone, the administrator benefit cost Twin Rivers Unified $51,000, according to the district.

Typically, public school administrators and their district employers each contribute 8 percent of employees' salary toward their pensions, according to state officials.

Four other large Sacramento County school districts – Elk Grove Unified, Sacramento City Unified, Folsom Cordova Unified and San Juan Unified – do not pick up the employee portion of pension contributions.

California State Teachers' Retirement System spokesman Ricardo Duran called the bonus perk rare. School administrators can participate in the California Public Employees' Retirement System or they can remain in CalSTRS if they previously taught.

As part of an effort to curb what they considered pension abuses, Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers last year required public employees hired in 2013 and beyond to contribute at least half of their annual pension costs.

"There is a reason they call it the employee's share, because the employee is supposed to pay for it," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Twin Rivers' pension generosity came to light this summer when newly hired Superintendent Steven Martinez pointed it out to the school board, said trustee Bill Bastian. Martinez began July 1 with an annual salary of $215,000.

Unlike contracts for previous Twin Rivers administrators drafted by district legal staff, Martinez's new agreement was drawn up by the Association of California School Administrators. It does not have the pension perk.

School districts should not pick up the employee share of pension contributions, said Martinez, who came from the Fresno Unified School District.

Most of the 13 contracts that have included the benefit were drafted in 2008 and renewed annually, according to Martinez. "I think the board renewed these contracts on a yearly basis in good faith," he said, adding that the contracts are difficult to understand "unless you really sit down and know what you are looking for and know what it means."

The administrators who received the perk include former Superintendent Frank Porter, former Deputy Superintendent Ziggy Robeson, four associate superintendents and seven assistant superintendents.

Three – Associate Superintendent Rob Ball, Assistant Superintendent Janet Balcom and Associate Superintendent Joe Williams – are currently working at the district and have Twin Rivers paying for their share of pension contributions.

Twin Rivers teachers union President John Ennis said rank-and-file employees will be "extremely irritated" when they learn top brass have been getting this perk. He said other employees in the district have not had a pay raise in over five years.

He plans to be at Tuesday's board meeting to demand that the district cancel the benefit and that administrators pay back their share of pension contributions.

"They need to stop it, and they need to stop it today," he said.

Bastian said district officials will consider whether to continue the benefit when it renews contracts in the spring.

Board President Rebecca Sandoval, who won her seat in 2012, is adamant about ending the perk.

"There is no way this practice is going to continue with the new board and new superintendent," she said. "We are no longer going to do business like this as we move forward."

For employees hired before 2013, a district can still pick up the employee contribution as long as the district does not count the benefit as salary, said Duran, the CalSTRS spokesman. If the district counts the pick-up payment as part of the employee's income, it would inappropriately boost the salary level on which pension benefits are calculated, he said.

After CalSTRS reviewed a copy of the Twin Rivers contract, Duran said officials plan to scrutinize the district's pension benefits.

"In this case, because this was brought to our attention, CalSTRS will be reviewing this district's practices sooner rather than later," Duran said.

Ennis, the union head, doesn't fault the school board for approving the generous pension benefit. "Honestly, I don't think the board realized," he said. He is pleased the new superintendent pointed out the perk. "That's very encouraging," he said. "We found our ethical man."

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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