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U-46 investment return comments challenged


By Seth Hancock
  A Board of Education member in School District U-46 put one of her colleagues on the hot seat for responding to a press inquiry to elaborate on a discussion had at a June board meeting.
  Board member Melissa Owens claimed that board member Phil Costello made “inflammatory” comments to The Examiner for an article headlined “Board member questions U-46 investing options.” Her criticism of Costello came during the fourth quarter investment report presented to the board on Monday, July 23.
  Costello raised concerns with the district relying solely on one investment advisor, PMA Securities, Inc., for the article as he claimed a more competitive process should be in place which could lead to higher yields on the district’s investments. He questioned the administration at the June 18 meeting as a list of authorized depositories was presented.
  The investment report at the July meeting showed that the district’s total portfolio stood at $318,203,882 at the end of June with a current yield of 2.075 percent. Dale Burnidge, director of financial operations, added that the district’s savings deposit account’s yield has increased from 0.4 percent to 1.95 percent.
  “That’s due to reinvestment of about $40 million, which matured in April and May which was previously yielding about between 1 and 1.3 percent,” Burnidge said. “We were able to reinvest that at 2.4 percent.”
  Costello asked what the longest duration of the district’s Certificate of Deposit (CDs), were, and Burnidge said: “I think the longest we have is 24 months.”
  “Is there any kind of a maximum?” Costello asked. Burnidge answered: “Off the top of my head, I don’t know.”
  Owens asked “there’s obviously CDs that have a longer maturity date, correct,” which Burnidge said there were.
  Owens continued: “I’m a little concerned that we have a situation where we had quite an inflammatory set of remarks made in public, or at least to a local newspaper, and yet we have here a[n] investment report that shows a different reality…. I’m curious. We’re a board. This is supposed to be under our purview on how to direct administration to work with our investments, and I was surprised to see that those remarks in the paper, without having had the conversation here on how we would like to direct the administration to do their job.”
  In his comments to The Examiner, Costello said U-46 has been “earning less than 1 percent” on its investments as he made a larger point that a more competitive process should be in place. At the June meeting, Costello asked how the district vets investment advisors and if there’s more than one advisor available to which Burnidge said PMA was chosen because a “majority of school districts invest” with them, but he admitted there are other options but U-46 has not looked into them.
  Owens said the most recent investment report of 2.075 percent meant Costello’s comments were not “reality,” but one investment report does not make a trend. That report was up from 1.279 percent in April, the highest yield since Costello’s been on the board, and The Examiner reviewed all investment reports since he took his seat showing an average yield of 0.876 percent at the time he spoke for the article, a 0.976 percent average including the most recent report, making his comment historically accurate.
  What also should be noted is that the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank, hiked interest rates to 2 percent in June, its fifth rate hike in just over a year. Rates were under 1 percent prior to March of 2017.
  “My question was how do we work with a competitive situation where you have alternatives,” Costello responded to Owens. “And this goes back at least two years where I’ve asked why we’re not getting higher interest rates, and at that time we were probably getting next to nothing as I was when I invest my money. I just have a lot less money to invest.”
  Costello said “we need other perspectives” and when he’s asked the district they’ve said they’ve “used our current PMA advisor to defend” U-46’s position. He said that’s essentially asking PMA if they are the best investment advisor which would be a fruitless endeavor.
  “It’s ridiculous,” Costello said. “So that’s what got me upset, but that was two years ago and I’ve had this discussion.”
  “I would rather we have those constructive... conversations here, especially in the finance committee,” Owens said.
  Costello interjected: “Which I did.”
  Owens, referencing that Costello is a public administrator for a park district, continued: “I’m going to be honest with you, this is your, you know, wheel house right? You do this as part of your professional capacity correct?... I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page and that we have the conversations constructively.”
  Costello said the district should “have multiple people making their own recommendations as to how we move forward with an investment strategy and even to the point where we revise or at least redraft the investment policy statement to say what we’re doing…. My one concern that’s never been addressed was the fact that we only use one consultant to get our best interest rate.”
  The Examiner offered Owens a chance to clarify some of her statements from the July meeting but she did not respond.
  Owens was asked what comments from Costello were inflammatory, why she felt she was not able to take part in the conversation considering Costello had the discussion at a meeting she was in attendance at, if she understood Costello’s “less than 1 percent” comment considering the historic numbers and if she agreed with Costello’s concerns since she wanted to be a part of the conversation.
  Costello did make a public statement online stating that in his own investment analysis the district had “missed opportunities” that cost them at least 40 basis points (0.4 percent), or $940,000, over 11 months last year.
  “At no time were the merits of my analysis assessed or detrimental consequences refuted,” Costello wrote of Owens. “I have consistently asked that District staff provide additional evidence of competitive bidding, robust internal control, and avoidance of sole sourced professional services. I understand that my role does not include micromanaging the District’s leadership or staff but I would certainly be happy to explain the basis for my assumptions and rationale for any of my statements if asked.”
  Costello added: “I will continue to objectively challenge the status quo for the sake of public transparency. I believe that my role as a Board member is to represent the best interests of all citizens by scrutinizing the District’s prudent fiscal management focused on the value proposition from return on investment of budget inputs and student outcomes of our education model.”

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