Taxpayers outside of Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 don't pay the salaries for educators working there, but they do have to help cover retirement costs for those educators.
And those pension obligations carry a significant price tag.
The 630 educators who retired from District 211 averaged pension payments of $86,982 last year, almost twice the state average, according to records from the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System,
Of those District 211 retirees, 268 — or 42.5 percent — received pensions of $100,000 or more in 2012.
Other suburban school districts aren't far behind. At Stevenson High School District 125 in Lincolnshire, 39.1 percent of the 133 retired educators receiving pensions make more than $100,000 a year in retirement. District 125 retired educators drew pensions averaging $79,489 last year, according to TRS figures.
The 95 retired educators who retired from Fenton High School District 100 in Bensenville averaged a pension of $75,651 in 2012 and 32.6 percent of them received pensions above $100,000.
Statewide, less than 4 percent of TRS beneficiaries receive a pension of more than $100,000, but that's mainly bolstered by the 3,022 six-figure pensions in suburban school districts. More than 7 percent of TRS pensions are $100,000 or more for educators who retired from school districts in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
Less than 1 percent of the retired educators in the state's other 96 counties receive pensions of more than $100,000.
Those numbers add ammunition to proposals that would have individual school districts take over more costs of funding their retirees' pensions — costs now handled by the state.
Republican State Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights says shifting the costs onto local schools would lead suburban school boards to be more accountable for salary decisions that drive pension obligations.
“It would force school boards to recognize the responsibility they have not just for setting salaries, but the pension liabilities that come with those salaries,” he said. “There is probably less pressure on school boards now and greater flexibility when it comes to contract negotiations because they know they don't have to pick up the pension liabilities the way most employers do.”
Others, however, say six-figure pensions are just a minor contributor to the state's budget and pension-funding problems.
Last year, TRS reported nearly 102,000 people were receiving pensions from the fund. Of those, 85,906 were retired from a public school district. The remaining 16,000-plus are surviving spouses, special education cooperative staff, or employees of associations, federations or state and regional education agencies.
TRS does not handle retirement benefits for Chicago Public School teachers and administrators.
Educators who retired from suburban schools make up a little more than half of the TRS retirees and receive an average annual pension of $56,795. Retired teachers and administrators from downstate school districts averaged pensions of $41,683 in 2012, according to TRS data.
District 211 Superintendent Nancy Robb acknowledged the former employees' salaries led to their six-figure pensions, but said the district's salaries were in line with what other suburban school districts paid.
She added that salaries within the district are also higher because 89 percent of the teachers have graduate degrees.
Since 2005, Robb said, District 211 has cut costs by $12 million. However, she said the district also pays a premium for staff longevity.
“We really believe long-term service creates stability within the district and our employees make a commitment to the organization,” she said. “That way, quality leadership and teaching is perpetuated.”
Still, critics believe suburban school boards are taking advantage of the fact that local taxpayers aren't solely responsible for the pension obligations created by educators' salaries.
“They figured out how to game the system,” said John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative government finance advisory organization. “The districts don't have to pay for the pensions, the state has to pay for it. Poorer districts where teachers make far less money, taxpayers there are subsidizing millionaire pensions.”
His group is pushing for legislation that would shift the retirement costs to the individual districts, a proposal that has lost steam in the legislature in recent months. One bill in the Illinois legislature does address shifting the obligations away from the state by requiring school districts to pay a 401(k)-style match for new teachers only.
Meanwhile, others say teachers are being blamed for the state's funding shortfalls and the public's ire toward educators' retirement benefits is misdirected.
“In terms of the pension system's fiscal position, egregious pensions aren't what caused the problem,” said Amanda Kass, a research and policy specialist at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan think tank. “If the state had all along contributed what they should have, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now.”
The state is billions of dollars short of fully funding TRS. For years, the legislature has struggled to secure a plan to address the funding challenges that will be backed by a majority of lawmakers.
However, Robb and many other school official believe changes are coming sooner rather than later. She said the focus should be on finding a balanced plan.
“Obviously, like every other district we are concerned about this,” she said. “People have to get beyond the finger-pointing and get to the solution. That solution is a shared sacrifice.”
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