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posted: 3/29/2010 12:01 AM

Still teaching at 67? School, union leaders question pension reform

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By Kerry Lester

Illinois' budget mess has left schools hurting more than just about any government entity.

Suburban school leaders have spent recent weeks slashing millions from their budgets, collectively firing thousands of teachers, and hacking away at the special education, music and sports programs that draw so many families to the suburbs.

While superintendents and union leaders alike are crying out for a funding fix, they remain opposed to many aspects of a sweeping pension reform plan that was speedily approved by state lawmakers on Wednesday.

"Probably the most concerning part of the reform for me, is that it happened in such a knee-jerk fashion. This really should have happened a long time ago. We end up now having to do strong reactionary measures instead of what could have been planned and paced and controlled changes," West Chicago District 33 Superintendent Ed Leman said Friday.

The reform, which still requires Gov. Pat Quinn's signature, will require anyone hired by schools, universities, the state or local governments after Jan. 1, 2011 to work until 67 to get full retirement benefits.

It also caps the maximum salary for figuring a pension at $106,800. Annual pension cost-of-living increases, now an automatic 3 percent, would be limited to half the rate of inflation or 3 percent, whichever is less and based on the beginning pension amount, not compounded every year.

Here's a look at how some suburban educators are reacting to the overhaul:

On hiring and the future of the profession

Shirley Forpe, longtime president of the union representing Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 teachers, believes the changes will hurt recruitment. "Teachers face so many pressures as is. You want to make this an attractive job. You want to appeal to those professionals who could make big bucks in the corporate world. We want to attract them to education," she said.

Over the past several years, Leman says he's noticed a difference in the outlook of new candidates anyway. "There aren't as many who have viewed this work as a lifetime's work. There tends not to be the same kind of long-term planning or processing or commitment."

Still, he said, about cutting maximum pension amounts and increasing the retirement age, "I can't help but think that it's a little hypocritical to clamor for the best and the brightest and then resent the salary and benefits and slash them and still expect the best and the brightest to be willing to commit long-term."

Teachers at 67?

"It's pretty clear that the state had to do something (to reform the pension system)," Maine Township High School 207 Superintendent Ken Wallace said. "I just think the age 67 is a little problematic. ... The stamina it takes to be at the top of your game as a teacher -- It's a much more demanding job than a lot of people realize."

Contract negotiations

The next time districts and unions head to the bargaining table, they will deal with two different retirement packages for teachers hired before next January, and those hired after.

Round Lake Unit District 116 educational employees union co-president Kim Kearby says, "throwing in another whole section of the contract" is going to be exceedingly complicated. Yet Wallace believes problems from the two-tier system won't really emerge until several years out, when teachers hired under the new pension system are retiring in tandem with others that were hired under the old system.

Will it bust district budgets?

It could, some officials say.

With teachers currently able to retire at 55, the school salary structure is set up so that pay maxes out while they are in their 50s.

The pension reform adds more years of work and caps the maximum salary for figuring a pension at $106,800. It does not, however, prohibit districts from paying teachers more than that amount.

Wallace pointed out that one of the benefits of letting teachers retire early is being able to replace more expensive, veteran teachers with younger, lower-paid teachers.

Forcing retirement at 67 instead of 55, "that puts someone at the top of the pay scale an extra 10 years in the district. There isn't any doubt about the economics of that," Wallace said. "From the state's side, they're not looking at that. But we are. Of course we have to."

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