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updated: 5/4/2012 12:42 AM

GOP: Chicago school funding advantages should be part of pension debate

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SPRINGFIELD -- As top Illinois Democrats push for suburban schools to pay more teacher retirement costs, some Republicans argue state lawmakers need to first look at certain advantages Chicago schools get when it comes to getting state money.

Democrats backing a plan to shift more pension costs from the state onto suburban and downstate schools often argue it's unfair that Chicago schools already pay for teachers' pensions, unlike other schools. But Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont points to several state grant programs where she says Chicago schools get more than they should, based on their enrollment.

Overall, Republicans say, Chicago schools get about 28 percent of the money from several state grant programs -- for special education, free student lunches and early childhood education, among others -- even though the city has about 20 percent of the state's students.

Not only that, but Chicago schools get that money automatically, while suburban and downstate schools have to apply for a grant.

"Suffice it to say that Chicago gets a pretty good chunk of the money," Radogno said, saying grants should be allotted on a per-student basis.

A spokesman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton says those school cash issues should be separate from attempts at dealing with the state's pension problems. Plus, he says, the state's most common way of handing out school money tries to help poorer schools, unlike the wealthier school districts in some suburbs.

On the other hand, he said, the state picks up pension costs for wealthier schools while leaving Chicago schools to pay for their own.

"While the state's poverty grant policy attempts to give proportionally more funding to less wealthy school districts, the way (teachers' retirements are) funded operates in the opposite direction," said Cullerton spokesman Ron Holmes.

This school year, Chicago's school district is set to get about $1.2 billion in the state's most common form of aid. Schools in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties get about $1.5 billion as a group but have more students.

The debate over who should pay more for teachers' pensions has grown increasingly heated in Springfield in the past several weeks.

Gov. Pat Quinn has backed the idea of having suburban and downstate schools take on pension costs not covered by the state, but he hasn't yet offered specifics about how it would work or how long it might take to phase in.

Until then, it's unclear how much the pension plan would cost each suburban district, but local officials think it could be millions of dollars each and lead to possible teacher layoffs and tax or fee hikes.

Democrats, though, got a boost Thursday from a report from conservative think tank the Illinois Policy Institute. The report suggests school districts should be able to absorb increased pension costs.

And it says high-paying districts like some in the suburbs trigger the state to spend more money on pensions, which are pegged to salaries.

"That means that wealthy school districts are having their highly paid teachers' pensions subsidized by those who are not wealthy," said John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute. "They should be the same as the rest of government."

The idea of shifting pension expense to school districts has become part of a larger debate over the state's quickly growing pension expenses. Quinn has proposed major changes to reduce teachers' retirement benefits, including raising their retirement age to 67 and having them pay more of their own salaries toward their pensions.

Republicans think the cost shift to local schools and the benefit reductions should be considered separately, with an emphasis on benefit reductions.

Lawmakers are working toward a May 31 budget deadline, and House Speaker Michael Madigan told the Daily Herald this week that he'd like to see major pension changes come before they leave Springfield for the summer.

But with an election looming in November and arguably more difficult budget cuts to make to the state's spending on health care for the poor, it's unclear so far what might get done this year.

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