CCSF faulted for mishandling administrator pensions

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerDebt: The California State Teachers’ Retirement System says it will collect $385

City College of San Francisco has been scrutinized by accreditors for weak leadership and poor financial planning in recent months, and now the troubled college is facing off with the state’s pension system for public teachers.

A recent audit by the California State Teachers’ Retirement System found that for nearly two decades, the college has signed up administrators who were never legally eligible for pension benefits.

The pension fund also found multiple problems with the way CCSF reported salaries used to calculate pensions.

The fund intends to collect about $385,000 in benefits it has overpaid as a result.

Pension officials want 10 administrators removed from the CalSTRS system, including three who have already retired and are collecting benefits. And they have demanded that the school prove the eligibility of at least 13 others.

The college has balked, saying the pension fund is unfairly trying to strip dedicated public employees of their retirement benefits.

“It is unconscionable for STRS to suddenly threaten the retirement of persons who served for decades,” Margaret Merchat, an attorney with School and College Legal Services, wrote to pension officials earlier this year.

City College spokesman Larry Kamer said the district will make its case to the pension fund in a meeting in Sacramento today.

“We take the entire report very seriously,” Kamer said.

In one instance detailed in the audit, CalSTRS found that a former official who was caught up in a campaign finance scandal was receiving a salary higher than what the board had approved.

Ex-Associate Vice Chancellor James Blomquist pleaded guilty last year to two misdemeanors for misusing public funds during a political campaign for a college bond measure. He paid a $20,000 fine.

By the time he retired in 2009, Blomquist had been paid about $61,000 that the board never authorized, auditors found. Those excess funds boosted his lifetime retiree benefits by $224 per month, the audit shows.

Besides, they said, Blomquist never actually qualified for a CalSTRS pension at all.

College board President John Rizzo said he was disturbed by the audit’s findings regarding the ex-associate vice chancellor.

“I’m definitely going to want some answers on Blomquist,” he said.

CalSTRS contends Blomquist and the other administrators never performed the type of academic services that would make them eligible for the pension program under state law.

“We believe that they were misclassified,” said CalSTRS spokesman Ricardo Duran. “I cannot say that we’ve encountered this at other districts.”

For its part, the college says the administrative positions in question have long been considered academic posts that are eligible.

Merchat wrote that many districts enroll their administrative employees in CalSTRS. She accused the pension fund of targeting CCSF for something she said is a common practice across the community college system.

“It appears that CCSF has been singled out,” Merchat wrote. “Such selective enforcement is not

Duran said he could understand the “sense of outrage” among employees being threatened with losing lifetime retirement benefits.

“That is why we make a point to try and work with the employees to make sure that people are classified correctly from the beginning,” Duran said. “If there is any discrepancy or disagreement, then we hash this out early in their career rather than waiting till they retire and having to unwind a complicated situation.

“Unfortunately,” he acknowledged, “that did not happen in this case.”

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