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State teachers pension fund faces investigation, potential investment strategies changes

PSERS — the Public School Employees' Retirement System — is one of the largest such plans in the nation. It has been under federal investigation for months.
Tim Tai
Philadelphia Inquirer
Under FBI investigation, Pennsylvania's $64 billion public school pension fund sought to backtrack on previous disclosures that staffers were working on both sides of real estate dealings.

On today’s program: Joseph DiStefano from the Philadelphia Inquirer explains how the state’s Public School Employee Retirement System board has decided to change its investment strategy after underperforming for years and being the subject of federal probes; the National Aviary’s director of animal program and experiences recounts how Kodiak, the Steller's Sea Eagle, was safely returned after escaping his enclosure and living on his own for nine days; and a look at how the state’s assistive technology program is increasing accessibility to residents with 3-D printed tools, all while gaining hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers.

Under increasing scrutiny, the PSERS board voted to make big changes
(0:00 - 7:12)

The state’s Public School Employees' Retirement System, PSERS, has faced extreme scrutiny over the last year. It’s the subject of a recent federal investigation and causing costly investment for taxpayers, who already contribute $5 billion to the PSERS treasury every year.

Most recently, the retirement system’s board has considered nondisclosure agreements to prevent any leaks of information to the press.

“It’s a $72 billion pension fund, one of the largest in the country,” says Joseph DiStefano, a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Unfortunately their obligations are well over a hundred billion dollars, so they have a large deficit.”

DiStefano says the fund is meant to be self-sustaining but isn’t fulfilling that role.

Federal investigations from multiple agencies including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating how the pension fund has reported its returns, which are required under state law; real estate deals and potential kickbacks.

A 15-member board oversees the fund, which includes governor appointees and legislators. Five of the members are from the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a teachers union.

“The PSEA members have formed the backbone of the support for the current management,” says DiStefano. “That is why the management has hung on as long as it has, despite these investigations, despite underperforming their peers, despite resisting a lot of the calls to change investments.”

Just last week, the board decided to change it’s investment strategy from paying for costly hedge fund managers of buying an increasing number of U.S. stocks.

The National Aviary is caring for Kodiak, the Steller's Sea Eagle, again
(7:19 - 14:32)

For nine days Pittsburghers were searching backyards, trees, parks, everywhere in what was likely the most extensive eagle hunt in history.

Kodiak, the Steller’s Sea Eagle, escaped from the National Aviary and was eventually captured October 4.

“We received hundreds of tips,” says Cathy Schlott, director of the Aviary’s animal program and experiences and a licensed falconer. “People would send us video and photos and they were very, very helpful.”

Schlott says the Aviary was able to follow Kody’s behavior patterns while he was out and could keep track of his movement that way. “We were just one step behind where he was,” says Schlott.

Eventually, Schlott says Kody made eye contact with an aviculturist he knows, and another aviculturist was able to capture him with a soft netting and transport him to the aviary in a carrier.

How Kody escaped is still unclear. Schlott says they found a gap in the wire mesh of his enclosure, but they haven’t yet shared what made the gap.

“This is something that’s never happened before, and we’re gonna make sure that it’s something that never happens again,” says Schlott.

The Aviary is now making renovations to Kody’s habitat. Schlott says it may be several weeks before Kody is back in his public enclosure.

How an assistive technology organization is using TikTok to connect with those who need their tools
(14:36 - 22:30)

Pennsylvanians who are in need of assistive technology or advice on how to adapt the use of everyday items can now learn about it on social media through TechOWL, or Technology for Our Whole Lives. TechOWL is part of the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, and is home of the state’s Initiative on Assistive Technology

“We help all people of any age with any disability discover, choose and get tools to make life easier, from very simple tools, everyday things to very complicated ways to control computers with your eyes, for example.” says Kim Singleton, director of TechOWL.

During the pandemic, TechOWLturned to TikTok to create informative videos about its tools and resources. Tom DiAgostino, the outreach and training coordinator for TechOWL is behind many of those videos.

The videos feature seemingly simple tools like plastic, 3-D printed handles for better holding keys, or a pool noodle being cut open to easily hold playing cards.

“The tools that we will 3-D print or the tools that we have that are incredibly light tech with no batteries that we can inform people to use, it might only assist with one action, but being able to do that one action independently is incredibly important and that’s what these tools are for,” says DiAgostino.

The organization’s TikTokaccount currently boasts more than 172 thousand followers.

“One of the things I’ve seen on TikTok are the number of comments that people have, ‘Oh my gosh, I could use this with my grandmother,’” says Singleton. “So we’re hitting both the potential AT [assistive technology] user that’s probably not on TikTok and a support person for that person that is on TikTok.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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