Uncertainty on pensions a challenge for schools

Possible shifting of costs a factor in negotiations

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 11:23 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Nov. 1, 2013 10:23 a.m. CDT

Some McHenry County school districts have been waiting on the answer to an important question while negotiating teacher contracts:

Will pension reform shift the burden of paying teacher pensions onto local districts?

Lawmakers got that answer Friday, as a cost shift was not included in the summary of the pension legislation, which was obtained by the Northwest Herald on Friday afternoon.

A cost shift is something House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has long wanted. And even as a pension deal was reached this week, details of the plan were kept quiet, leaving school boards flying blind during the negotiation process.

“I haven’t seen the details of the proposals,” said Ted Wagner, School District 155 Board President. “All I’ve seen is what’s in the newspapers. It’s left a lot of questions out there as to the ramifications to the school districts.”

District 155 teachers have already authorized a strike and could potentially walk out if progress isn’t made during the next negotiating session in December.

Wagner said there are several uncertainties aside from the pension deal that have made negotiating teacher contracts particularly difficult this year, including transportation cuts and education mandates. All the district can do is negotiate with the facts it has at the time, Wagner said.

“As a board of education, we are willing to negotiate any time,” he said. “We still feel confident we can come to terms. We look forward to getting this settled and getting it done.”

District 156 Finance Committee Chairman Gary Kinshofer also said coming to an agreement without knowing whether the district would be on the hook for teacher pensions presented a challenge during the negation process.

“It’s always a concern, especially in the financial position we’re in,” he said. “You can’t negotiate what you don’t know.”

District 156 teachers are currently working under the terms of an expired contract as they negotiate a new deal with the school board.

Upon hearing that cost shifting would not be part of the pension deal, Kinshofer said it does alleviate some concerns, but he was reluctant to say the information would markedly improve the deal-making process.

“[The pension deal] hasn’t been signed yet,” he said. “We’ve heard about pension reform four, five, six times and there’s been nothing. … Does it change the negotiations a whole lot? No. We are negotiating in our terms regardless of pension reform.”

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