By Liz Oakes
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MAINEVILLE - Nearly two years after his investigation into financial mismanagement led to tighter rules on how Ohio teachers' pension money is handled, Warren County educator John Lazares finally has a say on the future of the troubled State Teachers Retirement System.
In what some are calling an upset, the state's active teachers have elected Lazares and dumped longtime incumbent and board chairman Eugene Norris, a Franklin County teacher who had been endorsed by the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
The vote announced Saturday was 22,625 to 22,351 in favor of Lazares, superintendent of the Warren County Educational Service Center in Lebanon.
The $47 billion retirement system covers 400,000 active and retired teachers.
"No one thought I'd get elected because I don't have any way to campaign," said Lazares, 54, a Hamilton native who now lives in Maineville.
But Lazares said he did talk to groups around the state about the retirement system's spending, which included millions on artwork and other expenses while retired teachers' checks were reduced and their health insurance costs rose.
Lazares, who also heads Warren County Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities agency, and a fellow superintendent, Dennis Leone of Chillicothe, began to raise questions in November 2002 after noticing rising administrative costs in the system's financial report.
He and others found that although the system's assets plummeted more than $10 billion between 2000 and 2002, teacher retirement staff spent millions on items such as bonuses, trips to Hawaii, baseball games, concerts and Paramount's Kings Island tickets.
Executive director Herb Dyer resigned last August following a firestorm of criticism over the spending.
Stacie Hutton, 32, who teaches at Columbia Elementary in Deerfield Township, said she voted for Lazares.
"I think he's an administrator who historically has supported teachers," she said. "I would feel very comfortable having his voice on behalf of my future."
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