Texas Teacher-Retirement Fund Trashed for Porcine Ways

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Move over, Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump. Texas's top public accountant says your expensive tastes are getting strong competition from the people who run the state's pension fund for teachers.

State Comptroller John Sharp last month bestowed upon executives of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas his first "Silver Snout" award for having "their noses buried deep in the public trough."

The agency that oversees the teachers' trust spent more than $700,000 on what Mr. Sharp called "expensive furniture, extravagant artwork, fancy china, top-notch exercise equipment, and even a greenhouse" for its new headquarters.

"Clearly, these t.r.s. bureaucrats place their own self-interest ahead of the financial interest of Texas teachers, who have every right to squeal like a pig the way their investment funds have been spent," Mr. Sharp said.

The officials "engaged in a truly profligate spending spree in which they exhibited the imagination and panache--and the sensitivity--of a Donald Trump or a Leona Helmsley," he added.

Ronald E. Douglas, acting executive secretary of the trs, does not dispute the figures, but maintains the descriptions have been exaggerated.

"It might have been more appropriate had [more attention] been given to the facts," said Mr. Douglas, who had been at the helm of the agency for just six weeks when the brouhaha broke.

Some of the custom-made furniture (priced at $272,000) was built to accommodate elderly and infirm visitors, he said, while other pieces were built to the same specifications of furniture the system has used since 1972. "In our view, it was a cost-effective move," he said.

The $43,000 greenhouse, Mr. Douglas said, is not really a greenhouse, but rather a glass enclosure on the roof in which plants have been placed. And the exercise facility filled with $50,000 worth of equipment, he said, is merely a small room.

John T. Montford, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has8called for an audit of the agency to determine why so much money has been spent on the building at a time when Texas faces a projected $4.5-billion budget deficit, said the Senator's education aide, Glenna Lane.

Mr. Sharp also has launched an audit of the t.r.s., which paid $235,000 for artwork and $8,800 for china.

Scant Benefits Decried

The expenditures were particularly galling to many in the state because the system has a reputation among teachers of being stingy when it comes to paying benefits.

To be sure, the fund is fiscally sound. An independent group says it has the second-largest surplus of any state teacher-retirement system in the nation.

But Ollie Besteiro, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said retired teachers can receive as little as $250 monthly.

Asked by the legislature for a plan to fund statewide health insurance, the system reported back that it would be too costly, said Ms. Besteiro.

The union official also takes the trs to task for making investel15lments in commercial properties like a shopping mall and an office building that went belly up.

"They have a greenhouse for ailing plants," she said. "What I say is they ought to take care of ailing teachers before they take care of ailing plants."

Vol. 10, Issue 29

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