End pension sweetener for teachers

  • Teachers demonstrate outside a pension forum sponsored by the Daily Herald two years ago at Harper College.

    Teachers demonstrate outside a pension forum sponsored by the Daily Herald two years ago at Harper College. Daily Herald File/2014

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 5/21/2015 3:36 PM

It could be a rough year for negotiating teacher contracts, if Indian Prairie Unit District 204 is any indication.

Teachers overwhelmingly spurned a contract that included annual raises but did away with two sacred cows of the public-pension set: retiree health benefits and automatic end-of-career pay boosts designed specifically to increase pensions for teachers in the district that serves parts of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Meanwhile, the Illinois Supreme Court effectively guaranteed many public employee retirement benefits stay at the status quo for now by rejecting a state law that would have cut pensions and saved Illinois money.

So it's back to the table on both fronts.

And one thing that shouldn't be on it is the end-of-career pension sweetener.

Not guaranteed by the state constitution and hard to defend, the pension booster still has been difficult to kill off. Past teachers and administrators frequently got double-digit raises in each of the last three years before retirement. Lawmakers got irritated a decade ago and passed a law charging school districts penalties for approving end-of-career raises over 6 percent.

Now, 6 percent raises are the rule in each of the final three years before teachers retire in a number of suburban school districts, including District 204.

Because annual pensions are based in part on the final years of pay for public employees, those 6 percent raises continue to pay off for the employee and drive up public pension costs for decades after retirement.

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Reining in profligate spending is only the tip of the problem.

These days, it really is a choice between funding pensions and funding students' educations. The pension law that was struck down in a huge victory for public employees was projected to save $90 billion to $100 billion for the state over time.

One of the biggest moves to try to rescue the state's finances failed.

That choice will more clearly come into focus if some pension costs get shifted from the state onto local school districts, a constant legislative theme in recent years. Local school boards then would face tough decisions about how to come up with the money for retirement benefits.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruling solidified a standard for pensions for teachers and public employees, and it's a generous standard.

Those benefits can't be changed, but the time is long past for public employee retirement benefits that aren't part of that guarantee.

Retirement costs still must be reined in, and the pension sweeteners are an obvious place to start, not just for District 204 but for school districts across the suburbs.

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