District 53 hopefuls support shifting pension payments to schools

Opposing candidates share the view

Updated 10/16/2012 12:21 AM
  • David Harris, left, and Curt Renz are running for the 53rd House District seat.

    David Harris, left, and Curt Renz are running for the 53rd House District seat.

State Rep. David Harris acknowledges that his support for shifting pension responsibilities to suburban school districts sets him apart from most fellow Republicans in the Illinois legislature.

But it's one area on which he and the Democrat running against him for the 53rd House District, Curt Renz, completely agree.

Democrats in Springfield maintain the school districts that negotiate salaries with their teachers and administrators should be the ones that pay the pensions, which are greatly affected by salaries.

Republicans have countered that local districts are dependent on property taxes, which would see huge increases if the pensions were added to their responsibilities.

Harris disagrees with his fellow Republicans but says he has not committed to any specific bill. Two critical conditions for gaining his support would be moving the costs gradually and allowing the local districts to determine future pension benefits.

"If it's phased in over 12 to 15 years, my (district's) superintendents tell me they can handle that without increasing property taxes," Harris said. "They would have to negotiate benefits, too. They could not be dictated by Springfield."

Only current pension funding would shift in Harris' vision, not the billions owed to the pension system by the state.

Lower salaries for teachers and administrators would mean lower pension costs for the people of Illinois, said Harris.

"Members of school boards have said to me, 'If we had the responsibility for the pension costs you would see a different salary structure,'" the legislator said. "We will see the school boards driving a harder bargain when it comes to the salaries of the teachers. It's the salaries that drive the pensions."

Consider a teacher who has been working 10 years. Harris believes the state should be responsible for the part of the teacher's pension already earned, while the district's responsibility would phase in for future retirement costs.

"You're not taking away anything that the teacher has already earned," he said. But benefits over the rest of the teacher's career would be an item on the table during contract negotiations.

Renz said even if property taxes did increase, there would be savings with other taxes.

"I am in complete agreement," he said. "It should have been done a long time ago."

Harris listed pension reform as his number one priority, writing in a Herald questionnaire, "Pension payments are consuming any increased revenue the state is taking in year over year, thus denying proper funding to needed services like education, health care, transportation ...," he wrote.

David Schuler, superintendent of Northwest Suburban High School District 214, and Elaine Aumiller, superintendent of Mount Prospect Elementary District 57, both said advance notice of state action would be critical, as would a gradual shift.

"I'm not saying I'm in favor of it, but we are willing to be part of the solution," said Schuler.

Aumiller said she has "huge concerns about a shift. Our finances are very tight under current constraints. But we all know it's coming."

The uncertainty over the future of pensions is "just driving people crazy," especially teachers who are near retirement, Schuler said.

He thinks other superintendents agree with his plea: "Fix it in a way that doesn't destroy us."

It is feasible for districts to absorb pension costs over a number of years -- such as taking on an additional or 1 percent of the state's portion annually, he said, but the nuances are important.

Schools are allowed to raise their levies -- the money they request from local property taxes -- only by the same percentage the cost of living index increases. So, Schuler asked, would districts be allowed to suspend contributions in a year when that index rose less than 1 percent? And he insists the state would have to maintain all its current aid.

Aumiller said the money would have to come from someplace, and "some of us have pretty skinny budgets. I have high class sizes already."

Renz acknowledged that the Illinois Constitution says pension benefits cannot be lowered. But he said perhaps because life spans have increased since the 1970 document, changes affecting the annual payments could still be construed as greater benefits.

"Go ahead with changes as long as they don't seem to be obviously against the Constitution," he said.

Teachers and other government employees must realize that changes have to be negotiated or the whole system could blow up, Renz said.

The 53rd District includes parts of Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights.

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