Kadner: Lawmakers too silent on teacher pension shift – Southtown Star

6 Mar

I’ve been waiting for an outcry from Southland legislators about a plan being discussed in Springfield to shift the state’s obligation to pay teacher pensions onto the backs of homeowners.

I haven’t heard a word.

I’ve called state senators Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields), Maggie Crotty (D-Oak Forest) and James Meeks (D-Chicago) and have yet to get a return call.

I ran into Crotty at a charity fundraising event, and she apologized for not returning the call. She told me that legislative leaders are discussing all options on pension reform, and rumors about a “done deal” when it comes to shifting the pension payments to school districts are inaccurate.

But representatives of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, have told me that such shifting is the one proposal they’ve heard that would be constitutional.

Article 8, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution states: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The teachers unions are threatening to file a lawsuit against the state if the Legislature passes any law affecting pensions that appears to violate that constitutional provision.

Illinois is billions of dollars in debt, in large part because the state has failed over the years to make the payments it owed to the Teachers’ Retirement System, which consists of all teachers outside Chicago.

Gov. Pat Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) have all said that it’s unfair for the state to pay into TRS because teachers are not state employees.

Cullerton and Madigan have made a point of saying that it’s especially unfair to Chicago.

Chicago taxpayers fund their teachers’ pension system, not the state.

No one denies that property tax rates in the Southland generally are higher than in the west and north suburbs. The primary reason is that the Southland does not have as large a business property tax base to alleviate the burden on homeowners.

But that situation becomes worse every time the property tax increases and small businesses, seeing their profit margins reduced, decide to close shop in Illinois and move across the border to Indiana. Young couples, looking to purchase a home, also often choose Indiana, where property tax rates are lower.

With more homes in foreclosure and more vacant storefronts, it becomes more difficult every year for school districts in the Southland to pay teachers a competitive salary and provide enrichment programs such as music, band, art and theater — while school districts in wealthier areas offer all sorts of extracurricular activities for their children.

Suburban school districts also are forced to pay millions of dollars in special education costs that are not reimbursed by the state.

All of this is well known to state legislators from the Southland, who once campaigned promising to improve education funding. Yet now they are silent as the state’s leaders plan to shift the teacher pension payments onto school districts.

If they proceed with that course of action, it is likely that school districts will be given a special property-tax authority to raise the money needed to pay those pensions.

It’s possible that school districts could attempt to renegotiate teacher contracts, asking the teachers to take a cut in pay. I believe it is unlikely that the unions would agree to such a plan.

School districts also could lay off teachers and increase the size of classrooms to save money, reducing the quality of education in the Southland.

Other than paying lip service to the woes of Southland schools, Springfield legislators have never really seemed to care whether children in the public schools receive a quality education.

Historically, controversial measures have passed the Legislature in the dead of night after meetings behind closed doors. Suddenly, there’s a new law that the public has had no chance to stop.

I fear this will be the case with the shift in teacher pension costs. So now is the time for voters and their representatives to demand accountability.

The Legislature created this financial crisis in Illinois. There is no reason to believe that in a moment of crisis, its members will suddenly find the backbone to do the right thing.

Force your state senator or state representative to take a position now.

This is about the education of your children, your property tax bill and your property value.

In other words, it’s about the quality of life in your community.

via Kadner: Lawmakers too silent on teacher pension shift – Southtown Star.

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