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TRS Board President's Message for Fiscal Year 2021

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Dear Members and Stakeholders:


On behalf of the staff and trustees of Teachers’ Retirement System, I am pleased to report that fiscal year 2021 was nothing short of a renaissance for ITRS.

I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished together in an unprecedented environment forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with extraordinary challenges, ITRS not only stood up to adversity; it thrived and exceeded all expectations.

As the son of two Illinois public school teachers, I know the importance of ITRS to working families across the state. In all 102 Illinois counties, schools knit together the fabric of our communities. Teachers – both active and retired – contribute daily to the vibrancy of our society and our economy. They celebrate our history, serve the present and mold the future.

The positive economic impact of ITRS benefits to the State of Illinois exceeds $6 billion annually and supports more than 44,000 jobs with salaries totaling approximately $2 billion. The retirement benefits earned by our members during their careers not only enables them to live securely, but allows them to give back in numerous ways. Our system is an integral part of Illinois.

When Governor JB Pritzker appointed me to the ITRS Board in the spring of 2019, it took some time to learn the management style of the System’s leadership. It became clear that change was needed. Over the next several months, the Board made many difficult decisions to facilitate a new era for the organization.

A number of senior-level administrators were replaced or retired. Directions and expectations for staff were sharpened and clarified. Service to our members has been reiterated from the top down as the number one priority at ITRS.

Today I can report that the new era we envisioned has blossomed. ITRS has renewed its focus as an exemplary, well-run public pension system.

Our accomplishments speak to the strong commitment of our staff toward basic principles established by the Board: workplace excellence, member-oriented service, financial transparency and making the world a better place.

New management

In a nine-month period, the executive director, chief financial officer, chief legal counsel, chief technology officer and chief human resources officer moved on from ITRS. In June of 2021, after an extensive nationwide search led by an independent outside firm, the Board found the right person in their midst. Chief Investment Officer R. Stanley Rupnik, an 18-year veteran of ITRS, was unanimously selected as the new executive director while retaining his responsibilities as CIO. Throughout the year, a number of management positions were filled, mostly by advancing well-trained and dedicated veteran staff from within.

The result of these changes has been a reinvigorated management team that emphasizes best practices, requires stringent decision-making procedures, sets clear and attainable performance metrics, mentors a collaborative environment and fosters a strong trust in staff, their knowledge and their skills.

Member service is the top priority at ITRS

During the COVID-19 pandemic shut-down, ITRS adapted its processes to a remote-work environment in order to continue paying all benefits to retired members and beneficiaries. ITRS was designated an “essential” state service by Governor Pritzker because of the monthly economic impact of ITRS benefits in communities across Illinois.

We did not miss a beat. During fiscal year 2021, while working remotely, we paid approximately $7 billion in member benefits on time and in full to more than 126,000 beneficiaries. More than 3,600 new retirement claims were processed. The System’s Call Center fielded more than 147,000 telephone requests for assistance and approximately 65,810 emails from members and their families.

The use of cutting-edge technology to serve members was reimagined

For years, ITRS has planned to implement a next-generation IT pension administration system, known as “Gemini,” to provide a secure and efficient backbone for our mission. The Gemini program will use emerging technologies to administer all member benefits and records. Implementation of Gemini has been delayed in order to enhance project management and redefine goals.

In fiscal year 2021, new management and restored confidence in the ITRS Information Technology Department led to the implementation of the first steps of the overall Gemini plan.

The first part of Gemini creates the foundation for another important ITRS initiative, a voluntary defined contribution program – the Supplemental Savings Plan (SSP). Voya Institutional Plan Services, our partner as the plan administrator, is working with ITRS to coordinate the deployment of the SSP.

ITRS investments soar

ITRS investments closed out FY 2021 with more than $10 billion in investment income, an extremely strong rate of return and record assets under management, despite the worldwide economic upheaval caused by the pandemic.

On June 30, 2021, TRS managed assets totaling approximately $62.7 billion – a record for the System and a 20 percent increase in assets during the year. ITRS closed fiscal year 2020 with $52.3 billion.

Through June 30, 2021, the preliminary fiscal year to-date investment return is expected to exceed 23.1 percent, net of fees. The ITRS long-term investment return exceeded the System’s long-term assumed investment return of 7 percent with a 40-year return during fiscal year 2021 of 9.3 percent.

Through forethought and careful planning, the ITRS Investment Department successfully navigated the perils of COVID-19’s attack on the economy. All public pension systems lost money during the early weeks of the pandemic, but compared to similar public pension systems, TRS was among the nation’s leaders in protecting member assets. During the first three months of the pandemic, ITRS assets fell from $54.2 billion to $48.5 billion. However, within eight months, dedicated work by the System reclaimed all of the losses, rebuilt the value of the portfolio to $55.7 billion and added another $6.8 billion by the end of the fiscal year.

Dedicated to equality and inclusion

The trustees and staff are re-doubling its efforts for the System’s long-standing commitment to increase diversity, equity and inclusion within the ITRS investment program. First, it enlarged the size of a 15-year-old program designed to mentor smaller, “emerging” money managers from a commitment of $750 million to $1 billion.

Along with an increase in funding, the redoubled effort also focuses on an increase in diversity hiring across asset classes; updated diversity selection metrics; and the development of a standardized evaluation tool to measure diversity, equity and inclusion practices within money management firms.

The total assets in the ITRS portfolio managed by Minority and Women Business Enterprises has increased from $8.2 billion to $13 billion in the last five years. In fiscal year 2021, ITRS continued to exceed its annual aspirational goal to have 20 percent of total assets managed by MWBE firms. Currently, ITRS commitments to MWBE firms total $13 billion, or 21 percent of the System’s portfolio.

Taken together, all of these accomplishments affirm the commitment of the ITRS staff and the entire Board of Trustees to the goal of building one of the premier public pension systems in the United States.

We envision a system that is innovative, transparent, hard-working and responsive to all stakeholders. Above all, we see a system that fulfills its mission – ensure a stable retirement for Illinois educators who dedicated their careers to helping others succeed.

Reaching our goal will take time. The renaissance at ITRS is underway. We look forward to the future and together we are more than ready to conquer new challenges.

 

Sincerely,

Devon Bruce

President, Board of Trustees

Teachers’ Retirement System of the State of Illinois

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