Column: All kids left behind

By John Bambenek

What is it with Illinois and pensions? Champaign Unit #4 Schools are facing the possibility of strike over the recent change in state law that limits end-of-career pay raises. Mainly, the state is no longer going to pay for state agencies to give their employees 20 percent raises in order to encourage early retirement.

Right now, teachers’ pensions are calculated based on the average of the highest 4 of the last 5 years of employment. Originally, the state law allowed for 20 percent raises each year before there was a penalty. The state changed this to 6 percent with the employing agency paying a one time “penalty” for any year where they gave someone a raise over 6 percent.

This doesn’t make sense until you realize that pensions are not paid out of the school’s books. By allowing the 20 percent increase in salary, schools would artificially increase the pension benefit using the state’s money to encourage retirement. This would get highly experienced teachers who also had high salaries into retirement so they could be replaced by less experienced and cheaper teachers. The state, after seeing the proliferation of this practice decided to put a stop to it.

In the last contract the teacher’s union had, it took into account the 20 percent cap particularly in the case of early retirements. Now that the school has to pay for it, they want to reduce that benefit, and the teachers are pushing back. As a result, teachers haven’t had a contract since the end of June. An intent-to-strike was filed last Friday to “speed up” the negotiation.

The state has no one to blame for this stunt but themselves. The employing agency should bear the full cost of an employee’s pension (and be funded accordingly) instead of allowing the practice of dumping off people on the pension system. It was a stupid and ill-conceived system designed for this kind of abuse, no matter what cap you impose. They shouldn’t have acted surprised when people abused it.

This may be one of the few times I won’t come down hard on the union. It seems the district can’t seem to get a contract to them in a timely fashion, and many are tired of waiting. I disagree with tossing children out in the cold so adults can fight over money and pensions when there are other issues that really need to be addressed, such as the failing academics of these schools. That said, the union is dealing with a school district that suffers from a large leadership deficit that rivals its budget deficit, and one has to be sympathetic to that problem.

The school system is the real offender here. Under the supervision of Superintendent Arthur Culver the school has gone through twelve financial officers in two years. The financial situation of those schools is known to be horrid and with that kind of turnover, you have to wonder if Enron-like problems exist.

Financial stability hasn’t been on the agenda of Champaign Schools. Apparently neither has student success, considering the number of schools that repeatedly fail to meet federal standards. When the unions came banging on the door for them to fix their problems, they gave them the pension handout because it wasn’t the school’s money to begin with. This ethical lapse has come full-circle to bite them. Again, they have no one to blame but themselves.

The only victims here are the children. They are victims of a state that can’t organize a huge bureaucracy in such a way that doesn’t encourage rampant fraud. They are victims of a union that is willing to stick it to them so they can get a better deal from the school. They are victims of an absolute failure of a school system that not only can’t keep their books straight, but can’t even manage to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. While all these big groups fight, there isn’t anyone to fight for the children. That’s why we need school choice in Champaign and why we need it now.

John Bambenek is a University employee and a graduate student. His column appears every Friday. He can be reached at [email protected]