Prior to the start of Monday's Town Council meeting, upwards of 200 Coventry School Department employees and union members stood outside of Town Hall holding picket signs in support of the Coventry Teachers' Alliance/School Related Personnel (CTA/SRP) Pension Plan. Once the meeting began, in order to comply with the Town Hall Chambers' capacity, many members of the crowd were asked to listen to the meeting from the building's lobby.
According to Town Manager Tom Hoover, the "Coventry School Employees Pension Plan and Trust", is approximately $24 million underfunded and the State Auditor General has asked the Town of Coventry to provide an individual position on the matter in regards to liability.
According to the Council's resolution, read in full by Town Clerk Cheryl George (see attached documents), the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the School Committee and CTA/SRP and Local 1075 Union, states "the School Committee shall provide a contribution to a pension plan", but does not specifically obligate the Committee to provide defined benefits outside of what is contractually required.
Hoover explained that because the Town and School Committee have both contributed to the plan what was contractually obligated of them in the past, the Town's position to be forwarded to the Auditor General is that it has no further obligation to the plan past what is stated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
"The School Committee's budget is in total approved by the Town Council and each year when we were obligated to put money in, we put in that amount," said Hoover. "I believe and suggest to this Council that we do not have the liability for this plan being underfunded."
Council President Gary Cote agreed with Hoover, stating that the pension plan's board of trustees (two members of the School Committee and two from the union) should be held accountable, and not the taxpayers who would ultimately foot the bill if the Town and/or School Committee are held responsible for making up the plan's deficit.
"As far as I can see from looking at all the facts, the Town of Coventry, the administration on this side of 117, was never responsible for administering this plan," said Cote. "Secondly, the taxpayers through the approval of the school budget every year have already paid their share of this pension. If the board of trustees for this pension plan did not look out for its financial best interest on behalf of its members, I don't think that means that the $24 million should be laid on the back of the taxpayers."
Many audience members argued that they are in fact, also taxpayers of the Town as well as school employees. Others inquired why the Town is contributing towards the police and municipal pension plans, both of which are also currently underfunded, in critical status and have implemented funding improvement plans to rectify the situation.
CTA President Kelly Erinakes spoke on behalf of the union, stating that present and past council members had in fact been aware of the plan's unfunded liability and should help protect the school employees who have undergone significant "Draconian changes" to their pensions and benefits in recent years.
"As members of this council, you are charged with the care and custody of this town and this befalls on you as well," said Erinakes.
Councilman Ted Jendzejec stated that he feels the community should pool its resources to help fund the plan, a sentiment that was met with applause and a standing ovation by audience members.
"I just think that sooner or later it's going to fall on the backs of the taxpayers if there's not a plan to help fund it now," he said. "We're a community here, not just school committee, SRP, town council - and we should all be putting our heads together to help all of the pensions in the town be funded. I just don't understand the division, pitting the town against the school committee, the citizens against the SRP, people against people. We should all be working together for one common goal. This is just not a good thing."
Jendzejec went on to suggest that the two newly-elected members of the Council, Karen Carlson and Greg Laboissonniere, be given more time to review the facts of the issue in order to make an educated decision. He also questioned why the Council was attempting to act on the matter when the School Committee had not done so yet, as is the usual procedure for matters pertaining to both entities.
Based on these points, Jendzejec motioned to table the agenda item for a future meeting - a decision approved by the rest of the Council.
The Coventry School Committee will discuss its position on the matter at Tuesday's meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the School Administration Offices in the Town Hall Annex.