From John Curry, August 14, 2009
"Leone questioned how Billirakis could be on leave from a position that never existed or he never filled."
Canton Repository, September 5, 2003
Superintendents spar over board member’s pay
By PAUL E. KOSTYU
Copley Columbus Bureau chief
COLUMBUS — Two superintendents accused each other of breaking the law in an argument related to the State Teachers Retirement System.
Chillicothe Superintendent Dennis Leone accused the Perry Local Schools in Lake County of fraud for billing STRS for the lost services of STRS board member Michael N. Billirakis, who has been on Perry’s payroll in name only for the past two years.
Leone later retracted his accusation, but still said Perry schools should not have billed STRS more than $33,000 during the last two years to pay part of Billirakis’ salary.
Perry Superintendent Tim Berkey said the charge was “absolutely unfounded.” He accused Leone of violating Ohio law by using taxpayers’ money to pursue a personal, political battle not in the interest of the Chillicothe district.
The two superintendents duked it out in an hour-long phone conversation Wednesday night.
The issue, however, may now be moot. Billirakis said Thursday he agreed with Leone. He asked Perry schools to stop billing STRS in January. He said neither Perry nor STRS should pay for his salary if he’s not teaching.
Billirakis said the National Education Association, where he is an executive committee member, will reimburse Perry for the portion of his salary the union has not covered the past two years. Then, he said, Perry will reimburse STRS.
Billirakis said his pay this year will come entirely from NEA, where his full-time position keeps him on the road in and out of Ohio most of the year. Billirakis said he will initiate a change in board policy this month about how STRS reimburses districts.
“I’ve found board members are all over the place in how they’re charging,” he said.
Districts with employees on the STRS board are allowed to bill the pension fund for the cost of hiring a substitute or replacement for the days missed because of board business.
Billirakis has not been in a classroom since 1988, when he became an officer in the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union. In 2001 when he was named an NEA executive, Billirakis moved his teaching contract to Perry schools from a lower-paying district in Portage County. Doing so improved Billirakis’ benefits when he retires. Perry lists his salary, including benefits, at $101,820. Billirakis lives in Pickerington, southeast of Columbus, while Lake County is east of Cleveland.
Berkey said Billirakis, a social-studies teacher, is on a “leave of absence” and “does not perform any work for Perry.”
Leone questioned how Billirakis could be on leave from a position that never existed or he never filled.
“It’s fraud to get reimbursement,” Leone said.
Leone said Thursday morning, “The more I think about it, I think that all three (Perry, STRS and Billirakis) are equal partners to the problem. I think this whole deal smells really bad.”
Damon Asbury, interim executive director of STRS, did not return a phone call for comment Thursday.
Leone said his school district’s attorney said he has not violated any law in his campaign for accountability. “I don’t want my district’s (retirement) contribution to go up because of misspending by STRS,” Leone said.
“A school administrator should not be taking taxpayers’ dollars to pursue a political issue,” Berkey said. “This is not a school district issue.”