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Now is time for resolve, reason
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 4/27/2010 12:00 AM

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Outrage against excesses in public pensions is warranted and understandable. But it also needs to be kept in perspective.

In editorials earlier this week, we've bemoaned the state's shortsightedness in setting the stage for the problems that exist in education pensions and local school boards' tacit acquiescence in taking advantage of the system. But, as Daily Herald staff writer Matt Arado explains in today's installment of our series on school pensions, the search for solutions is more complicated than it may look on the surface. Outrage may motivate us to look for answers. It's thoughtful cooperation that will help us find them.

Most suburban residents would be delighted with the prospect of retiring at age 55 on a $150,000-plus guaranteed annual pension as 131 Illinois school retirees have done. Most of us relish the thought of a $100,000-plus annual pension that some teachers have. A system that allows such extremes in public education deserves nothing if not more scrutiny.

But it's important to note that only 2 percent of Illinois teachers earn that $100,000-plus pension. And, to achieve their pensions, teachers pay the retirement system more than 9 percent of their annual wages. They don't pay in to Social Security. To bring them into that system, assuming passage of a constitutional amendment allowing it, would automatically add more than 6 percent - the amount private employees contribute - to payrolls that schools aren't paying now.

So, the problem is complex and requires thoughtful cooperation of the schools, the community and the state. Clearly, school pensions have reached a point beyond the taxpayer's ability to pay for them. Now, we have to find a way to address this that recognizes both the high value we place on education and the reasonable questions about what we can afford.

Teachers, many of whom spent a day in Springfield last week clamoring for tax increases, need to understand the hardships taxpayers face and their legitimate concerns about the system. Taxpayers need to keep in mind that not all educators are gaming the system, and most are just abiding by the rules set out for them.

This is not to say that the problems with the pension system are overblown. Hardly. The very point of the Daily Herald's four-day series is to emphasize that the problems are real and their implications for the future are dire.

But the solutions will not be found in demonizing the beneficiaries of a flawed system nor in lashing out defensively at the system's critics. Solutions will come from doing what hasn't been done - establishing firm standards on what constitutes a fair pension and how it will be paid for.

Those kinds of results come from understanding and determination. Anger may lead us - indeed should lead us - to address the system's excesses and inequities. Let's be sure to use reason and resolve in actually solving them.