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posted: 2/12/2012 12:01 AM

Should local schools share teacher pension burden?

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Recently, several top legislators in Illinois have floated a trial-balloon idea to shift the state's responsibility for funding teacher pensions to local school districts, and, we must say, our first reaction was one of disbelief and skepticism.

Knowing politics in this state as we do, we easily could envision a scenario in which state leaders simply try to dump a funding mess they've largely created onto local taxpayers.

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Let's be clear: A cynical move like that would be an unconscionable outrage.

A flat overnight abandonment of the state's responsibility would have dire and predictable consequences as our school systems struggled further to pay the bills. Likely among them: widespread teacher layoffs, reductions in the quality of our schools, increased taxes, teacher strikes, deepened acrimony between educators and taxpayers.

And the suburbs, given our sizable investment in quality teachers and schools, would be hit the hardest.

All that said, let's take a breath. Let's set our conditioned distrust of Springfield aside for the moment.

If the concept of some sort of funding transfer isn't so cynical, if it isn't just one more way for the state to ignore its bills, if it isn't the whole of the solution to the looming pension problem, if it's genuinely one of several pieces of a realistic and multifaceted pension reform plan -- and let's underscore this qualification: if it is phased in fairly and appropriately -- maybe the idea isn't so outlandish. Under those conditions, maybe it is worthy at least of exploration.

There is a logic to shifting some of the responsibility to local school districts: Since local school boards establish educator salaries, they ought to bear some of the political consequences for the impact those salary levels have on pensions. That would tend to make them more realistic when salaries are negotiated.

Meanwhile, make no mistake, local salary levels are only a part of the pension problem. The state, heavily influenced by lobbyists for public labor organizations, sets the rules on pensions, and if local taxpayers are to pay for the funding, then there also must be local control of the pension rules. That only makes sense. But is the state prepared to give up that control?

This, of course, is one of just several pension reform ideas bouncing around in Springfield. It's a reform worth debating, but in reality it's only a small piece of the solution, if even that.

Much more significant are ideas for a three-tiered pension system that would either increase the requirements for teacher contributions, reduce benefits or move to a defined-contribution rather than a defined-benefit system.

In each of these areas, as with the idea of shifting some funding responsibility, the state needs to proceed with caution, fairness and collaboration.

But one way or another, it is clear that the state must, in fact, proceed.

As nervous as we all naturally are about the potential solutions, we need to be even more nervous about the status quo.

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