COMMENTARY | On March 23, the Chicago Tribune featured another editorial calling for pension reform in Illinois. This time the person in the limelight is Roger Eddy, a former educator, a former elected state representative and the newly-hired director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. Because of his new job, which is going to pay him $200,000 a year, he will eventually be able to collect a pension of over $140,000 yearly.
Even though the Illinois Association of School Boards is a private entity, its employees apparently can maintain their membership in the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System (TRS). Eddy was previously a school superintendent. Had he retired based on his last pay as a school administrator, his pension would have been around $70,000 annually.
The Tribune has been on a crusade for pension reform of late, and examples such as Eddy's offer prime ammunition for the cause. In December the paper ran another piece pointing out several cases of people using loopholes in pension laws to line themselves up for generous pensions. Another case told of a union lobbyist who worked for one day as a substitute teacher and was then able to collect a lifetime teacher's pension.
Rank and file teachers in Illinois (I am one of them) should be outraged by these stories of corruption and abuse. My problem is that in all of these stories, I've never read one with a headline of "Gladys Johnson, Beloved English Teacher of 35 years, Loots Pension System." The stories that outrage the taxpaying public are of union officials rigging the system, or of top school administrators whose school boards gave them sweetheart exit benefits designed specifically to dramatically increase their future pensions (a practice the TRS has outlawed).
In Illinois, teachers do not pay social security. Therefore, they are not eligible to collect social security benefits later in life. Instead, they pay 9.4 percent of their gross salaries into the TRS system. It's a bit more complicated than this, but generally then the teachers can collect 75 percent of the average of the highest four of their last five years' salaries if they have taught 35 years. Teachers who became TRS members after January 1, 2011 are considered Tier 2 members. Those teaches have to work until age 67 to draw maximum benefits.
The Illinois legislature considered Senate Bill 512 last fall. That plan would have created a third tier. Teachers, of course, are opposed to this plan. My fear is that regular teachers are going to pay the price for the kinds of pension abuses chronicled above. I also worry that if the pension changes are made into law, it's going to be harder to retain young teachers in the profession once they realize they have to work longer for reduced benefits. It galls me that the abuses of the system are going to cost the teachers who have dedicated their careers to helping public school students of Illinois.Brad Boeker has been a public school teacher in Illinois for the past 21 years.