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updated: 4/27/2012 6:03 AM

Pension presentation in Naperville draws hundreds of suburban teachers

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As a teacher one year away from retirement, Geri Armitage finds herself worrying about Gov. Pat Quinn's attempt to address Illinois' escalating pension debt.

She fears the pension reform proposal the governor offered last week could end up taking away retirement benefits that were promised to her and other educators decades ago.

"I was told this is what the (state) constitution says," said Armitage, who teaches at Naperville North High School. "I was told they weren't going to be able to change it. All of sudden, I'm nauseous. I can't even sleep. What is happening to us now?"

Armitage and hundreds of other active and retired suburban teachers on Thursday packed the cafeteria at Naperville Central High School to get answers from Dick Ingram, the executive director of the Teachers' Retirement System of Illinois. But when it comes to the Quinn's plan, Ingram said there's still too many unknowns.

"It was an outline of ideas that, at this point, does not have sufficient detail behind it to figure out what it means, quite frankly," Ingram said during the town-hall meeting.

Currently, Quinn's plan includes increasing employee contributions by 3 percent, reducing the cost-of-living adjustment mandates and phasing in an increase in the retirement age to 67.

However, Ingram said the governor appears to have "backtracked a little bit" on a controversial proposal to shift the state's share of pension costs to local schools. He said that has created "a lot of confusion about where we are."

Suburban school officials largely have decried the idea of paying more for teachers' pensions. They say it could lead to teacher layoffs or higher property taxes to cover the costs.

"I think it's fair to say there's a lot more work to be done," Ingram said. "There's a lot of conversations that still need to take place. This is nowhere close to being a done deal right now. We're going to be sorting it out over the next six weeks, or perhaps longer."

Ingram outlined some of the reforms the Teachers' Retirement System would like to see happen, including the adoption of a state law that guarantees pension funding.

"The first step in this whole process of changing pensions is to put into place requirements that we receive the funding that we are due," he said.

The Teachers' Retirement System is the state's biggest pension fund with $37 billion in assets. But since 1970, contributions from the state are $15 billion less than what they should have been.

"You don't have to do the math very long to figure out that $15 billion earning a 9.3 percent return over that period of time would get us to a much different funded status than what we realize today," Ingram said. "So you can see what the core of the problem is."

Neuqua Valley High School teacher Todd Mertz knows the numbers, and that's why he says he's "absolutely appalled" by Quinn's proposal.

"Teachers have always paid their share," said Mertz, who has been teaching for 11 years. "Legislators have always said that they were going to pay (what the state owes) and never have."

Several teachers said state lawmakers should deal with the tax structure -- not change retirement benefits. At one point on Thursday, a retired teacher who suggested a progressive tax asked Ingram if he could feel the anger in the room.

"I have felt it all over the state of Illinois," Ingram responded.

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