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updated: 5/6/2012 11:37 AM

Sudden shift in pension responsibility is untenable plan

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

We were and are open to supporting the concept that individual school districts should bear some responsibility for the pension costs they create if they approve exorbitant pay raises or manipulate salaries in a blatant effort to boost retirement benefits.

We are open to supporting that idea because it is, indeed, the Daily Herald, through its "Public Pension Time Bomb" series, that twice now has uncovered suburban school districts handing out end-of-career salary boosts that fuel outrageous pensions, particularly for administrators.

The theory behind the concept is that shifting pension costs to school districts rather than the state would be better because school board members directly responsible for funding pensions would be much more apt to take care with the level of salary increases they negotiate.

That theory makes some sense. What makes little sense, though, is the idea that state officials would push through such a significant shift with no study or real evidence of its effects whatsoever. That we will not support.

When a funding transfer first was floated in February, we said we'd keep an open mind but that such an idea must be studied. And it must be phased in, fairly and appropriately. Now it's May. Four weeks remain in the scheduled spring legislative session. Majority Democrats continue to talk about shifting costs for pensions onto school districts, but we've seen no study of how this would work.

We've seen no agreed-upon look at the effects. We've seen no legislation that proposes that, nor have we seen legislation to fix the bigger problem: Illinois' $83 billion pension gap.

Some Democrats keep saying Chicago schools cover their pension costs, so why not everyone else? Well, for one, because Chicago schools get a much larger proportion of most state funding than do suburban or downstate schools, making those costs much easier for city residents to bear.

Look, we are loath to turn to that tired game of "Us against Them." For decades in this state, that kind of infighting has been used as a convenient excuse to do nothing.

But the fact remains that Chicago Public Schools long have received far more state funding than the suburbs. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont and House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego note that Chicago students get about 37 percent, or more, of several funding categories even though city students represent less than 37 percent of the state's total school population. They get 37 percent of early childhood education block grants. They also get more than their proportional share of funding for school meals, construction and special education, to name just a few.

Shifting pension costs to downstate and suburban districts without a phased-in plan likely would mean $10 million more in costs for taxpayers in Naperville Unit District 203, Cross contends. Smaller districts also would face another $1 million or more in bills to pay, he says.

None of that sounds remotely fair to us, nor does it likely sound fair to most suburban and downstate taxpayers or their representatives of both parties.

Illinois faces a pension crisis that must be addressed now. Gov. Pat Quinn's proposal to start fixing it by raising the retirement age to 67, requiring 3 percent more from teachers and other workers and limiting future annual cost-of-living increases seems to be a reasonable one. Concrete progress on that or something similar to it must be approved this spring. What must not be approved this spring is a major fund transfer that could literally drown suburban and downstate schoolchildren and taxpayers in a sea of sudden new costs we cannot and should not have to navigate on our own.

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