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updated: 8/20/2012 10:00 AM

Local schools dodge pension funding bullet

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  • Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego argues pension legislation during Friday's special session. Republicans, including Cross, have opposed shifting some of the state's pension costs to local schools.

      Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego argues pension legislation during Friday's special session. Republicans, including Cross, have opposed shifting some of the state's pension costs to local schools.
    Associated Press

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- With no action on pensions during Friday's special legislative sessions, suburban school districts have once again dodged a plan that would have them pay millions of dollars more a year for teachers' pensions.

The idea has been lingering in Springfield since last year, and some top Democrats in particular have pushed hard for suburban and downstate schools to take on the state's share of future teachers' pension costs, saying Chicago schools already do so.

The issue has energized local school officials, who protest that the additional costs will burden their already tight budgets.

But as school is getting started and lawmakers have remained in gridlock for months, some officials say they're trying to stress about it less -- at least for now.

"At this point, until we actually see something firm, we're trying not to worry about it," said Tony Sanders, chief of staff for Elgin Area School District U-46.

"All of our time and energy is trying to get schools open," Sanders said.

How lawmakers would ask schools to pay for teachers' retirement -- and how much it would ultimately cost -- has changed frequently over months of debate. And with Republicans' staunch opposition to the idea, school officials say they haven't necessarily had to start planning for additional costs yet -- though they're aware the rules might change.

Even if lawmakers did send them more pension costs, they wouldn't kick in immediately.

"Personally, I've become a bit callous to it," said Tony Quagliano, a school board member for Huntley Unit District 158.

Quagliano said that after lawmakers adjourned their regular session in May, he thought the chances of a pension overhaul that includes shifting costs to local schools fell sharply.

"Once they adjourned, they lost the momentum they had with what they were working on," he said.

Still, Gov. Pat Quinn and top lawmakers say they want to make big changes to the state pension systems. It's just unclear when they'll try again -- perhaps after the pressure of the Nov. 6 election has worn off.

Republicans have agreed with Democrats who want to reduce teacher and state worker benefits, saving the state money over the long haul. But whether Democrats that control Springfield can get Republicans to accept some version of moving pension costs to local schools -- or approve the proposal on their own -- will ultimately decide local districts' fate in the matter.

"I think the key point for us is that every time there is a conversation about our future budget projections, we're always mindful of pension reform discussions in Springfield," said Jeff Arnett, spokesman for Barrington District 220. "We fully anticipate at some point in the future the equation will change."

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