Dennis Leone didn't initially intend to play Robin Hood when he heard rumors of excessive spending at the State Teachers Retirement System office in early 2003. But once this Ohio superintendent realized the extent of the pension board's decadence on the backs of retirees, he gladly accepted the role.
Expensive business trips, parties and large bonuses were all paid for using the ever-diminishing assets earmarked for teacher retirement. At the same time in his district of Chillicothe, Leone was forced to slash $1.7 million from the 2003 budget. Gut-wrenching decisions resulted in the closure of three schools and the layoff of 45 staff members.
Meanwhile, whispers about the retirement system continued. While health-care costs skyrocketed and pension assets took a plunge, the system's leaders were still treating themselves like royalty. "Frankly, I didn't believe it," says Leone, who has been a superintendent for more than 20 years.
He wrote a letter in February 2003 asking questions about the spending practices. "In my school district, when we have declining assets, we take steps to cut costs," Leone told the pension board. He got no answer.
After 10 weeks of research, Leone confronted the STRS and demanded answers. "I felt like they were trying to get rid of me," he says.
According to information gathered by Leone and released to the Ohio press, administrative costs at the STRS increased 17 percent during a six-year period. Thirty-four employees received bonuses of more than $40,000 in 2002. More than $480,000 a year was going toward child care for STRS employees. Leone's advocacy made him something of a celebrity among teachers in Ohio, where he has spent his entire educational career. The state-level work was a far cry from the personal interactions he was used to having in his own district, where he makes a point to work closely with both teachers and students.
By his own count, he received 400-plus letters and e-mails from throughout the state about his efforts to uncover the truth. After devoting their lives to the children of Ohio, teachers were being betrayed. "Everyone was outraged. We had all been na?ve. We had been too trusting, sleepy and ignorant. We thought we were sending our pensions to a bank in Switzerland," Leone says.
The superintendent has pushed the Ohio legislature to put in extra safeguards to prevent his level of malfeasance from happening again. "Dennis has been very outspoken in his frustration," says state Sen. Kirk Schuring. "He has been a tenacious crusader." Schuring has helped devise legislation to provide internal auditing of the pension fund's spending practice. "I think the legislature will respond in a positive way to the measure," he notes.
Moral of the story
Chillicothe's Joyce Atwood, an assistant superintendent, says that the moral stand Leone took in this situation is emblematic of his management style.Devoted to children and his district, he would never take a step to compromise them, she says. For instance, he makes
a point to be at all of the schools' important events and to be a constant presence in students' lives.
It might make for 80-hour work weeks, but it does have its rewards. Last year's high school graduating class dedicated their yearbook to him, an honor he points to with pride.
Atwood says her boss "has a sense of what is right. He feels he has an obligation to help individuals. Projects and issues are handled with justice."
When the day is done, Leone wishes he never had to be in a position to take on the pension board. Although not a naysayer by nature, he says he finds himself being more skeptical, especially about what goes on at the state level. Perhaps he should keep that Robin Hood hat on hand, just in case.
Steven Scarpa is a reporter and freelance writer based in Shelton, Conn.