SPRINGFIELD — A discussion is growing at the Illinois Capitol about the math in the pensions of suburban and downstate teachers.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — A discussion is growing at the Illinois Capitol about the math in the pensions of suburban and downstate teachers.

The Teachers’ Retirement System’s own numbers report the system is underfunded by nearly $40 billion.

Illinois’ total pension liability, for five state managed retirement funds, is $77 billion. That puts the price tag for retirement for teachers outside of the city of Chicago at more than half of the state’s total pension debt.

Lawmakers in Springfield and local school officials agree those numbers don’t add up. But there is no agreement on how to change that.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, is the latest to suggest the state may need to push on to local school districts more of the cost of teacher retirement.

“Fifty-six percent of our pension obligations, $4.5 billion this year, goes to the Teachers Retirement System,” Cullerton said. “And they’re not state employees, and they don’t even cover Chicago.”

Chicago teachers have their own retirement fund. Taxpayers in Chicago and teachers in the city cover most of the costs for it.

Cullerton said it’s a valid question to wonder why the state is guaranteeing retirement benefits for “local” employees.

But Alton School District 11 Superintendent David Elson said teachers and administrators may be local workers, but they are working as part of Illinois’ education system.

“Education is a state function. If it is not a state function, then why does the state tell local schools what to do?” Elson asked. “Teachers and principals are local employees, but only because the state says that’s the way it will be.”

Elson scoffs at the notion that Illinois leaders want to pay less into teachers’ pensions.

“How can the state pay less? They still owe us $3.8 million, or close to that/ … Lawmakers are the ones who shorted the pension system to begin with,” the superintendent said .

Cullerton said he is looking at negotiating whatever solution may be presented.

House GOP leader Tom Cross said he is not taking sides on the specifics of the teachers’ retirement plan. But he was quick to say that if Illinois does not do something soon, a lot of people may lose their pensions.

“If you’re a teacher, you’ve made your contribution every paycheck,” Cross said. “You’ve done nothing wrong. But if we let this go, and if we put our heads in the sand and don’t address it now, it will only get worse. We will not be able to sustain the system we have.”

Crystal Lake School District 47 Superintendent Donn Mendoza agreed that the system is “broken.” But he said the fix is not for the state to dump its problem on local schools.

“If the solution that is being talked about is to fully shift the burden (of retirement costs) to local districts, that is truly troublesome,” he said.

Mendoza said his district is doing better than some others, but still doesn’t see a way Crystal Lake schools could afford to pay retirement costs. He also said he doesn’t think local taxpayers would go for a tax hike to cover the costs.

Rock Island/Milan School District 41’s Bob Beckwith said voters in the Quad Cities wouldn’t go along with new taxes, either. Rock island is dealing with a $1.3 million deficit this year. Beckwith said that adding retirement costs would make that number soar.

“It’s very difficult for a district, any district in the state of Illinois, that has financial difficulties right now to have more mandated programs that the district has to fund without additional resources. … It’s going to be difficult for anybody to have to absorb that kind of cost,” he said.

But right now the talk of pension changes, or a shift in payments, is just that — talk. Lawmakers have not introduced legislation and no one is saying if they expect a vote this spring.

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