Teachers irked by pension reform plans hold rally in Naperville
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org May 17, 2012 7:42PM
Area educators gather at Naperville's Free Speech Pavilion on Thursday, May 17, 2012. Occupy Naperville organized the rally that marched to Darlene Senger's office to protest a proposal that would hike teachers pension controbutions and raise their retirement age. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
About 130 teachers put their signatures on a pair of oversized petitions addressed to local state Reps. Darlene Senger, R-Naperville, and Michael Connelly, R-Naperville. The statements read:
“We, the undersigned, call upon members of the Illinois General Assembly to hold more public forums to debate the pension issue before ramming damaging legislation through without public input. Whereas the State of Illinois has failed to fund pension obligations for 40 years for teachers and public employees, we also call on our representatives to uphold the Illinois Constitution and enact fair and viable pension funding solutions.”
Updated: June 29, 2012 8:30AM
Teachers are handing out failing grades to state lawmakers who hope to fix the public pension problem by asking them to take home a smaller paycheck, and make them work longer before they can collect their accumulated retirement benefits.
About 150 teachers and their supporters turned out for a rally Thursday afternoon in the Free Speech Pavilion on Naperville’s Riverwalk. They came out to air their anger over a plan in the works in Springfield that could cut their incremental cost of living adjustments and send a larger chunk of their income to the pension fund, which is currently carrying a $44 billion unfunded liability.
Gov. Pat Quinn last month laid out a proposal that calls for an increase in the retirement age to 67 and a reduction of the 3.5 percent cost of living adjustment to 3 percent or half of the consumer price index, whichever is less. Quinn estimates the plan will save the state between $65 billion and $85 billion by 2045 and wipe out the systems’ unfunded liability.
The educators take exception to the plan. The protest, coordinated by Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice and Educators United for Strong Public Schools, especially took aim at Rep. Darlene Senger, R-Naperville, who is part of a legislative group working on the issue.
“I just feel that they want to solve the state’s problems on the back of one group of people,” said Chris Sines, a retiree who taught at Geneva Middle School for 34 years.
She said the state has yet to take a hard look at potential remedies for the yawning shortfall, such as implementing a graduated income tax or placing a $1 surcharge on exchanges that take place at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Options Exchange.
Mary Shesgreen of Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice, who described pension reform as thinly disguised “austerity measures,” said the proposals to expand teacher obligations are unfair.
“They’re also unnecessary, because we could increase revenue instead,” she said.
Along with the graduated tax and trading fees, the nonprofit coalition supports eliminating tax loopholes that boost corporate profits and setting an income maximum for families to qualify for school vouchers.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, last week pitched a plan that would use the municipalities’ share of personal property replacement tax income to help rebuild the teacher pension fund. Municipal leaders, including those in the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, don’t care much for the idea. Eight DMMC members went to Springfield this week to discuss legislative concerns, putting special priority on their opposition to the Madigan plan.
“For us, it would be about a half million dollars,” said Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger.
He knows teachers don’t want an added drain on their income, but emphasized that officials don’t want the responsibility for offsetting the pension shortfall to be placed on the backs of the taxpayers either.
Many of the teachers showed clear frustration over the problem.
“Recently, a bus load of 60 teachers went to Springfield,” said Joni Lindgren, a retiree who taught reading to at-risk students in West Aurora District 129. “They wanted an answer to one question: why are the teachers having to pay more and getting less, while the corporations are paying less and getting more?”
Senger estimated that she has heard from thousands of teachers via email and phone calls, one of whom was Lindgren. In Springfield for regular legislative sessions this week, Senger said her group was meeting again Thursday and expects to have a bill ready next week.
“Basically the devil is in the details, in terms of how this thing is going to work,” she said.
Although she can’t yet estimate what the impact will be in 2014, she said some $5.8 billion in pension cuts are locked in for next year.
“That’s what we have to pay in order to keep us on top of the unfunded liability,” Senger said.
She acknowledged the educators’ aggravation.
“A lot of fear is out there, but there’s also a lot of wrong information out there, because the goal is not to take the pension away, it’s to get it to a point where it’s sustainable,” she said.
One possibility under discussion is a phasing-in of the higher retirement age. Senger considers it worth a look.
“Where I am on it is that if you retire before you’re 67, you don’t get your cost of living increase until you’re 67,” she said. “If you’re not collecting COLAs for, say, 15 years, that makes a difference” in the pension deficit.
According to Naperville resident Annette DeAngelis-Marshall, the misinformation door swings both ways.
“This is unconstitutional,” said DeAngelis-Marshall, an educational consultant and special-needs teacher at Hinsdale Central High School. “It is in the state Constitution to not touch our pensions. The public doesn’t realize that.”
Also little-known is most teachers’ ineligibility to collect Social Security payments when they retire, even if they have paid into the system when employed in non-teaching jobs. While working as educators they pay only into TRS and most relinquish their right to collect Social Security benefits after they stop teaching.
“People don’t realize that,” DeAngelis-Marshall said. “They think we’re double-dipping, but we’re not.”
Jane Brueggemann, a Naperville resident who taught fourth grade in District 203 and is affiliated with Educators United for Strong Public Schools, said sometimes putting in enought private-sector hours does entitle a retired teacher to receive a modest benefit.
“It’s always a pittance,” Brueggemann said. “It’s like enough to buy gas to go to the grocery store.”
Krieger, who came out to watch a portion of the rally, said lawmakers will have to come up with a remedy that works.
“It’s a big enough deal where it will have to have a resolution, which is going to be painful for someone,” he said. “What Springfield’s trying to do now is figure out how that pain is going to be issued.”