Utrust - Appreciating, Developing, and Supporting School Staff

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Our History

In 1935, a provision to provide Unemployment Compensation benefits for workers temporarily unemployed through no fault of their own was signed into law. Effective January 1, 1978, this provision was amended to extend coverage to government agencies. With this extension of coverage came costs to school boards which continued to escalate.

Dr. Dan Tollett, Executive Director of the Tennessee School Boards Association proposed that the TSBA lead in establishing a separate entity to help school boards to reduce unemployment costs by lowering rates and providing cost management services to local school board systems. The TSBA Board of Directors supported the proposal.


The Beginning

On July 1, 1980, Peggy Walters (Maury County), Dr. Merlin L. Cohen (Union City), and Sue N. Puckett (Jernigan) (DeKalb County) signed an Agreement and Declaration of Trust officially creating the Tennessee School Boards Insurance Trust (TSBIT) as a distinct and separate organization from TSBA, and providing to seven trustees exclusive authority to govern the Trust. The seven school board members selected from the TSBA Board of Directors to become the charter trustees included John Franklin (Chattanooga), Allen Watts (Rutherford County), Peggy Walters (Chairman), Dr. Merlin L. Cohen , Bill Ross (Madison County), Billy Ray Vinson (Hardin County) and Sue N. Puckett. TSBA Executive Director Dr. Dan Tollett was designated as Trust Administrator.

The Trust was designed as an umbrella organization under which any type of insurance services could be offered to local school boards in Tennessee. Of the seven school boards represented by the charter members of the Tennessee School Boards Insurance Trust, only two, DeKalb County and Hardin County, actually became members of the Trust.

The trustees selected Gates-McDonald, Inc. to help set up the Trust and to provide a series of regional meetings with school boards to explain the new concept to them. Kelly Potter and Woody Hillard of Gates-McDonald joined TSBA staff members, Dan Tollett, Wanda Anglin Little and Dr. Dana Swick, in conducting the sessions.

At the time most school boards in Tennessee were tax-paying boards. Under this plan, the state collected 1½% of the first $6000 of taxable payroll per employee from each local school board and in turn paid unemployment claims against the board. The Tennessee School Boards Insurance Trust began by reducing the rate paid by local boards– most by 50%– thus significantly cutting the cost to the school boards that became members of the Trust. Unlike the state fund, unused funds of the TSBIT would be held and used for the benefit of the membership  as determined exclusively by the trustees. Member boards had no individual liability nor any individual claim to any surplus generated.

Thereafter, trustees established a formula for determining individual rates for each member board based upon that board’s unemployment claims experience. In December, 1980 with a membership of 40 systems, the fund reserve stood at $119,363.59.


The Vision

Dr. Tollett articulated a vision of a Trust which would be able to reduce unemployment costs and make more funds available to provide educational opportunities for children through wise investment. Trustees adopted the vision and even though the overall percentage of contributions required from boards continued to decline, the board of trustees began to invest the funds held in reserve. The trustees’ commitment to the vision was supported by member boards since premiums were lower than they had been paying before the Trust was formed.

As the reserve of the Trust started to grow, trustees considered options for obtaining maximum returns on Trust investments. Bill Peerman, a professional investment consultant, went to the Department of Commerce and Insurance to investigate investment options available to the Trust. He found no prohibition against investing unemployment compensation funds in the stock market. However, there was a prohibition for investment of insurance funds such as worker’s compensation funds that may be established for local school boards.  This provision prompted a decision by the trustees for TSBIT to deal exclusively with unemployment compensation and not to bring other insurance programs into the Trust.


Narrowing the Focus

The first and only program ever offered through the Tennessee School Boards Insurance Trust was unemployment compensation. Therefore, the Trust became known as the Tennessee School Boards Unemployment Compensation Trust (UCT).


Support for TSBA

In 1985, the reserve in the UCT had grown substantially to $1,512,449.00. Since the UCT was housed at the TSBA offices, the UCT trustees voted to loan TSBA $180,000 to use in completion of the TSBA headquarters building. In 1985, TSBA repaid $36,500 of the loan and the trustees agreed to convert the remaining $148,500 to a lease whereby TSBA Board of Directors agreed to provide three offices in its headquarters building for the UCT for 99 years. Trustees at the time of that action were: Chairman Charles Bridwell (Sullivan County), John Franklin (Chattanooga), Nancy Holland (McKenzie), Sue Puckett-Jernigan (DeKalb County), Dr. William Hoover (Paris), Judy Toombs (Wilson County) and Billy Ray Vinson (Hardin County).

In 1992, the trustees voted to fund the building of a board development center and risk management offices as an addition to the TSBA headquarters. The addition cost $450,000 completely funded by the Unemployment Compensation Trust. Trustees at the time of the vote included Chairman Patricia Gruenewald (Haywood County), Roger Greene (Hamblen County), Jim Mansfield (Warren County), James Neely (Huntingdon), Christine Howard (Covington), Becky Jaquish (McMinn County) and Dr. Sam Winfree (Putnam County).

In 1994, Kristi Coleman joined the TSBA staff and began to handle financial affairs for the UCT. She worked closely with professional money managers to handle trust investments. Significant growth of trust funds occurred during this period. Because of the success of the Unemployment Compensation Trust and the growth of the reserve fund due to wise investment, the trustees determined that recruiting additional school boards for membership in the UCT would be disadvantageous to the school boards that were members of the Trust. At that time, membership had reached 54 school boards including TSBA.

At the end of December, 2003, Dr. Dan Tollett retired as TSBA Executive Director but agreed to continue to serve as Administer of the trust as he had done since its inception.


Name Change

On March 31, 2005, a new Intergovernmental Agreement became effective which officially changed the name of the Trust to the Tennessee School Boards Unemployment Compensation Trust (UCT). It also changed the trustee selection process from appointment by the TSBA President to election by the Trust membership. It provided for two trustees to be elected by the members in each of the three grand divisions of Tennessee and a seventh trustee to be elected at-large. The 2005 Intergovernmental Agreement required that each trustee be a member of a school board holding membership in the Trust.


TSBA Breaks With UCT

In 2005, the leadership of TSBA asserted that TSBA owned the UCT and could use the funds in the Trust for the benefit of all members of TSBA—not just the members of UCT. The Tennessee Attorney General issued an opinion that UCT was a separate entity from TSBA. He opined that TSBA was not a governmental entity and therefore could neither own nor be a member of UCT.  Based upon the AG opinion, the Trust attorney opined that TSBA could no longer receive sponsorship fees from the UCT unless it provided something of value in return. UCT trustees generously offered to continue to provide $85,000 annually to TSBA as it had done for several years but with the requirement that the funds must be used to sponsor TSBA activities related to school board responsibilities concerning employment, unemployment or personnel management.

TSBA President John Conley of Washington County,  who had accepted an invitation to attend the trustee meeting, rejected the offer and informed the trustees that TSBA had no interest in such sponsorship. However, he insisted that the UCT pay TSBA $85,000 for the use of TSBA’s name.  Trustee Don Elledge, an attorney by profession, patiently explained that the trust name was, ”Tennessee School Board’s Unemployment Compensation Trust” which did not include TSBA’s name.  He explained that the only use UCT made of TSBA’s name was to require that members of the UCT be members of the TSBA. At Mr. Conley’s insistence that TSBA’s name not be used without a fee being paid for its use, the UCT trustees voted to drop that requirement and to discontinue the annual $85,000 sponsorship payment to TSBA.


Trustee Elections

In 2005, David Jones of Hancock County became the first trustee elected at-large by a vote of all member boards. Ron Britt of Wilson County, representing Middle Tennessee, became the first trustee to be elected by the membership of a region. In 2006, Camille Lashlee (Houston County) representing Middle Tennessee, Jasper Taylor (Crockett County) representing West Tennessee, Tammy Baird (Hawkins County) and Roger Greene (Hamblen County) representing East Tennessee were elected by the member boards in their respective regions. In 2007, with the election of Joey Cooper (Benton County) representing West Tennessee, the Board of Trustees became entirely comprised of elected members.


UCT Purchases Office Space

In 2007, trustees voted unanimously to purchase an office space in Hunt Club between Hendersonville and Gallatin and to employ a director of Finance and Administration full-time. Kristi Coleman became the first full-time employee of UCT. The new office facility provided an opportunity for the UCT to collect and display information about the history of the UCT and the people who contributed to its success. The UCT trustees held its first meeting in the new facility in October, 2007.


Employee Appreciation Program

In 2008, the trustees initiated the Employee Appreciation Program to assist local school boards that belonged to the UCT with plans for employee recognition, appreciation and development. Trustees also adopted the name “Utrust” as a nickname for the UCT and adopted the following motto: “Appreciating, supporting, and developing school employees.” A communications and media specialist was hired to help implement the new program.


Premiums Changed to Annual Payments

In 2010, unemployment premiums were changed from quarterly payments to one annual payment. The premium calculations for each member school board became based on the board’s average claims cost of the last four and one half years.  Unemployment claims escalated significantly because the state, prompted by the federal government, extended UC benefits to a total of 99 weeks.


EAP Adds Themes and Student Leadership Focus

The Employee Appreciation Program flourished in 2010 as a new focus on student leadership in the EAP was implemented. The program began promoting a theme for celebrating each appreciation day. The Utrust Writing Competition was initiated as part of the EAP and 14 awards were presented to winners across the state.

The 11th Annual Utrust Member Appreciation Dinner was held at the Pinnacle building in downtown Nashville. A newly created slideshow describing the EAP celebrations in local school systems was shown and awards were presented to Hawkins and Jackson Counties for Most Outstanding EAP.


Members Receive $4 Million More in Ten Years

Through wise investment and sound management practices the Unemployment Compensation Trust has rebated premiums to member systems for eight out of the last ten years, thus bringing significant savings to each participating school board. In fact, over the previous ten years, Utrust paid out over $4 million more than member boards paid in premium from 2001 through 2010. At the same time, Utrust reserves grew significantly.


Bridwell Award

The Charles Bridwell Award was established in 2012 to be given annually to three boards, based upon size of the district, with the lowest average unemployment compensation claim per employee. The award was named in honor of Charles Bridwell, a former Utrust chairman and long-term member of the Sullivan County Board of Education.

Mini-Grants

In 2012, the staff proposed that Utrust establish mini grants as a way to share the success of the trust with its members.  In the past, even when trustees declared substantial dividends, school board members were sometimes unaware that their system had even received a dividend. Further, the money was usually just added to the general fund and seemed to have little impact on the district.

The mini grant proposal was presented as a way to promote excellence in employment practices in member systems and to create an incentive for boards to control unemployment compensation costs.  It was also seen as a way to enhance the image of the local school board and boost employee morale by channeling funds to schools and classrooms where the staff could see the direct impact of the funds on their students.

Five Star Award

In order to help control unemployment compensation costs and make schools better places for employees to work, boards were encouraged to meet five standards of excellence in employment practices.  The five standards were based upon practices that would result in reducing and controlling unemployment compensation costs. Each board that met all five standards would earn the Five Star Award to be presented at a local board meeting by a trustee. Such boards would also qualify for an additional 25% in any mini-grant funds whenever mini-grants were made available to members.

The first mini grants were presented to school boards in 2013. Each member school board had an option to use of their entire allocation for a system-wide project of the board’s choosing, use the mini grants for school-wide projects proposed by principals or principals could allow teachers to apply for mini grants to be used in their classrooms. Five EAP School of the Year Awards were presented for the first time.

In 2014, the first awards for “Awesome Notes of Appreciation” were given to honorees or the school based on principal discretion after each appreciation day for elementary, middle and high school.  The notes are written by students or staff members expressing thanks to an employee in the group being honored on one of the eight appreciation days throughout the year.


Maintaining the Vision

Through Utrust local school boards in Tennessee have been able to maintain stability in unemployment compensation costs by paying low annual rates to the Trust and having all claims paid by the Trust.  Now Utrust is helping school districts to improve staff morale and provide leadership opportunities for students through the Utrust Employee Appreciation Program.  Our plan is for Utrust to continue in perpetuity to make mini grants available to schools and school systems and to help boards make them better places to learn and work.