Daily Herald
School boards part of pension problem
Daily Herald Editorial Board
Published: 4/26/2010 12:01 AM

On Sunday, we detailed how the state legislature failed to fulfill its obligation to fund pensions for teachers and school administrators. That represents a big chunk of a $78 billion pension shortfall that Illinois taxpayers ultimately will need to fund.

Part two of Public Pension Time Bomb features Senior State Government Editor John Patterson's investigation that unveils a hidden cost financed by suburban property taxpayers.

Both of these problems ultimately can be traced to decisions made by local school boards, which approved contracts that inflated pensions by boosting pay at the end of careers.

Patterson's investigation explains how suburban districts had to pay $1.8 million in fines to the Teacher Retirement System because boards approved raises that exceeded a 2005 cap lawmakers imposed in an effort to get pensions under control.

These fines were imposed only on raises of more than 6 percent. It's a reasonable limit that grandfathered in existing contracts. The biggest offenders include Barrington Area Unit District 220, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and Elgin Area School District U-46.

The amounts don't look like much compared to a district's annual budget. But the fact that these boards and others thumbed their noses at an effort to rein in pension costs is a troubling sign that school officials just don't take their role in this problem seriously enough.

"It certainly wasn't a conscious thing on the board's part to specifically reward anybody. Beyond that I can't explain the circumstances to which that might or might not have happened," U-46 board President Ken Kaczynski explained.

That's not good enough.

In addition to the fines, school boards stick it to all the taxpayers of Illinois when they award large raises in the few years before retirement. This artificially inflates the salaries that ultimately determine payments to retirees.

It's one way local school boards encourage early retirement to get highly paid senior teachers off the payroll. And it compounds the burden on the state-funded pension system.

"Prior to the General Assembly acting on the problem, local school boards were far more liberal on the issue for their top administrators but also their classroom instructors," said state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, who sponsored the 2005 limit. "And they did so because they were largely handing the bill to the state."

It's time for school board members to take responsibility for their role, understand that a vote for a large administrator salary or teacher pay raise affects taxpayers for decades and answer to those who elect them. Taxpayers are more fed up than ever.

We can point fingers at an irresponsible and politically motivated legislature for our state's grossly underfunded pension system. But the blame also sits closer to home, in our local school boards. Those leaders must be held accountable.