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updated: 6/19/2012 5:50 PM

Quinn: School districts can handle paying for pensions

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SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn is pushing a study that says some suburban school districts have lots of money saved up and should be able to afford taking over some future costs of teachers' pensions.

The effort comes as Quinn and top lawmakers are set to meet again Thursday to try and find some agreement on a proposal to chip away at the state's $83 billion in pension debt.

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Quinn's data shows suburban schools having millions of dollars in reserves as of June of last year, and the governor thinks taking over the state's share of teacher retirement costs would be manageable for schools as a result.

"Clearly the school districts can afford to have a stake in the contracts they negotiate," said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. "There are no more excuses not to do fundamental public pension reform and do it now."

The Illinois State Board of Education cautions that school districts might have less than the study suggests, though. The numbers are a year old and the state education budget was cut, perhaps leading districts to dip into reserves they've accumulated over many years, according to a document from the state board.

Plus, the state often sends its payments to schools late, and officials can use savings to get by in the meantime, the document said.

Whether Quinn's numbers will spur compromise on state pension reforms remains unclear. Top lawmakers of both parties have agreed to provisions to cut teacher and state worker pension benefits by reducing how much their benefits rise annually in retirement.

But the question of whether schools, community colleges and universities should pay for the pensions the state has long covered remains a sticking point.

A spokeswoman for Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said the GOP is reviewing Quinn's numbers. But the party doesn't seem likely to back off its argument that the state should go forward with benefit cuts without shifting its costs to local schools.

"There's a lot of questions," said Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh. "It's a complicated issue that should not bog down pension reform."

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