BANKING/FINANCE : Caught Short, TMI Juggles Money to Honor Best Teachers in the State

Compiled by James S. Granelli, Times staff writer

For the last two years, Teachers Management & Investment Corp. in Newport Beach had been seeking approval to pay cash awards to the four finalists in the annual competition for teacher of the year. The state Department of Education, which selects the top teacher each November, had not been opposed to the idea--just slow to allow it.

Then, when the agency finally gave approval to the company last fall, TMI was caught by surprise. The cash awards were to paid out when the finalists were picked, but TMI was caught without the money.

"We didn't know we were going to be given the sponsorship of the awards," said Eileen Tabata, TMI's executive vice president. "We had been working on trying to get it for the last two years, so we didn't put the money in our 1987 budget year."

To come up with the November award money, TMI allocated the funds in its 1988 budget. And, in a special ceremony Friday, TMI will present a $15,000 check to the state's teacher of the year, Lorna Mae Nagata of Alhambra, and $5,000 checks to each of the other three finalists, including Barbara DeBow of Ball Junior High School in Anaheim.

The four teachers will then be feted at a luncheon sponsored by TMI at the Sheraton Sunrise Hotel and Towers in Sacramento, which is owned by 6,000 TMI investors.

"We're in the business of helping teachers with financial advice," Tabata said, "so we thought these cash awards would be a good thing for education at large, as well as a way to give something back to the 50,000 educators who have invested through us over the years."

TMI's offer "really fits into what we're trying to do: focus good attention on the profession," said William Rukeyser, a spokesman for the Department of Education. "Since the awards didn't represent any cost to the state, we were happy to cooperate with them."

The teachers have told the company that they will use the money to buy supplies and materials for projects they have already started in their classrooms.

TMI, which handles a $700-million portfolio for the state's educators, has now made the awards part of its annual budget and will be ready to make the next payment in November when a new teacher of the year is picked.

The money awards are new to the state's longtime effort at honoring teachers, and TMI believes its grants are the first monetary awards for teachers in any state.

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