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District 65 and District 202 representatives say they oppose  a State proposal to shift from the State to local school districts part of the annual costs of funding teaches’ pension. At a meeting on July 18 at Evanston Township High School, both superintendents, both CFOs, both Board presidents, members from each Board and a member of the Joint 65/202 Legislative Task Force decided that a joint statement to educate the public, followed by smaller meetings with state legislators could drive the message home: The proposal to ask School Districts to shoulder part of the State’s pension burden would force Evanston’s School Districts – and likely many others in the State – to lay off teachers and reduce services to students.

Erika Lindley, executive director of ED-RED, an education lobbying group, told the committee members that members of ED-RED had been meeting with legislators for the past several months, and that she felt that there would be no proposal on pensions until after the November elections. She also said, however, that she anticipated that the pension proposal would include shifting part of the annual pension costs – the “normal cost,” or cost attributable to the current year – to the local school districts. She said the local districts could be hit by the big amount all at once or that it could be “phased in.”

Teachers at Evanston’s two school districts are members of the Teachers Retirement System (TRS); they contribute about 9.4 percent of their annual salary to the pension fund. The state is responsible for contributing the balance needed to adequately fund pension payments that are and will become due under state law. Shifting the “normal cost” to school districts is estimated to be about 7.65 percent of a district’s annual cost for teachers’ salaries, according to information from the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, in a recent legislative report.

Locally, that translates into about $3.5 million annually forSchool District65 and $2 million annually forSchool District202.

Ms. Lindley attempted to focus the conversation toward addressing how to absorb those costs.  She said, “The focus of most of our conversations is on what school districts need to be comfortable with [the cost shift]. What are a district’s protections? How will we make it work?”

Many committee members rejected that stance outright.

“We need to be very clear about the long-term consequences [of the cost-shift],” said Dr. Eric Witherspoon, District 202 Superintendent. “It will cost [District 202] $2 million a year; we will have to cut $2 million a year.”

District 202 Board member Gretchen Livingston said, “I am very unwilling to concede the shift. … We have to be completely clear at this time that the shift is completely untenable.”

Katie Bailey, District 65 Board president, said she and Board member Tracy Quattrocki have been talking about “if the shift comes, is there a way to make it palatable? … The cost is $6 million [per year] to [local] taxpayers.”

Ms. Livingston said there is no way to make it palatable.

Dr. Hardy Murphy, District 65 Superintendent, said. “The only way to make the cost-shift palatable is to make it [stretch] over more years.”

Ms. Bailey said that, whether or not the cost was shifted to the local school districts or was paid by the state, the cost would be absorbed by [Illinois] taxpayers.

There would be an additional bite at the local level because of the shift, said District 202 Board president Mark Metz. “We [school districts] can’t raise taxes [because of state-imposed tax caps.]”

“I don’t know how we can pay for this without tax caps’ being lifted.  … He added, though, “Taxpayers in Evanston pay more than their fair share.”

District 202 Board member Martha Burns said, “Most people in this room see there is no tenable way to do this [accept the cost-shift].”

The committee members agreed to issue a joint public statement opposing the cost shift and to ask state representatives Daniel Biss and Robyn Gable and State Senator Jeff Schoenberg to meet with them.

Ms. Quattrocki said, “We should add [to our statement] that we don’t want to stand in the way of pension reform.”

Dr. Witherspoon said, “That’s absolutely right.”

Mr. Metz said, “We want pension reform. We just don’t want to be screwed.”