Despite protests from teacher unions and others, a committee of Louisiana’s top school board Tuesday approved a contract of nearly $143,000 for LSU to study the state’s nearly $12 billion teachers’ retirement debt.
The full board is expected to approve the plan on Wednesday.
The yearlong study is supposed to be overseen by Jim Richardson, director of the Public Administration Institute at LSU and a member of the influential Revenue Estimating Conference, which oversees Louisiana’s budget outlook.
The review is supposed to aid a task force of education groups grappling with the issue, including why costs continue to rise.
“It would be irresponsible for us to not have a third party take a look at the situation,” said Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Roemer, of Baton Rouge, said similar retirement problems have driven some municipalities into bankruptcy.
But officials of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana School Boards Association opposed the contract.
They said the review would duplicate a wide range of other studies on the same issue and that trimming costs of the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana is a job for the Legislature.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the key problem for the system is a lack of state aid.
At issue is what is called the Unfunded Accrued Liability, which is the money needed to pay promised benefits to both current and retired members.
The nearly $12 billion UAL for teachers is the largest of the state’s four retirement systems.
State Superintendent of Education John White said the issue regularly surfaces during legislative debates.
“We take a third of the money off the table before it even gets to the schools,” White said, a reference to yearly retirement obligations.
Brigitte Nieland, who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, made the same point in endorsing the contract.
“Information is not a threat,” Nieland told the BESE committee.
BESE member Jane Smith, of Bossier City, said she got a telephone call from House Retirement Committee Chairman Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell, questioning reasons for LSU to tackle the issue.
Lottie Beebe, a BESE member who lives in Breaux Bridge, questioned what the study would consist of.
Others said the state would be paying too much.
White said the contract will finance the work of professors who will do interviews with a wide range of education group officials as well as research.
LSU will also provide updates every six weeks to the task force of education organizations studying retirement costs.
The study is supposed to uncover reasons for rising retirement expenses, the ability of local schools boards to handle the costs and the long-term sustainability of the system.
Beebe tried to delay action on the issue until BESE’s March meeting.
Her motion failed on 4-6 vote.
Beebe and Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge, voted no on the final tally.