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Study: Streator district gets raw deal

Poorer school districts like Streator Elementary get the short end of the stick when it comes to state pension "subsidies," a research organization says.

Wirepoints, which bills itself as nonpartisan and independent, recently calculated what each Illinois school district receives in pension subsidies per student; the state pays the employer's share of pensions in every district except Chicago.

The Times compiled the Wirepoints numbers from 34 area districts. Districts with lower property wealth tend to get smaller pension subsidies per student, according to the data. That's because they pay teachers less.

Of the 34 districts, Streator Elementary, which now has the second lowest amount of property wealth per student, also ranks fourth lowest in pension subsidies per student, amounting to $396, the data says.

Last year, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation that changed the funding formula for schools. It was designed to send more money to districts with less property wealth such as Streator and Ottawa elementary districts.

Despite this, Wirepoints researchers said, wealthier districts still benefit from the way the state pays for teacher pensions.

"Since nearly 50 percent of the state's total budget appropriations to education have gone to teacher pensions in recent years, those subsidies still matter," Ted Dabrowski, president of Wirepoints, said in a news release. "Districts like East St. Louis and other property-poor districts will struggle to maintain adequate funding levels for education as pension costs eat up more and more state education dollars."

Streator Elementary gets $396 per student in pension subsidies, compared with $1,011 for Seneca High, which has a property-wealthy nuclear plant within its boundaries. Streator has $90,000 in taxable property wealth per student, far lower than the $1.6 million per student at Seneca High.

Study questioned

The Teachers Retirement System called Wirepoints' analysis "invalid."

"The (state) money goes to TRS, not the school district," the system's spokesman, Dave Urbanek, said. "The school district doesn't benefit from the money. The number of students in a classroom has nothing to do with the funding of pensions."

In Illinois, school boards decide on teacher salaries, which are a major factor in determining pension amounts. Wirepoints, however, suggests shifting pension costs to local school districts.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner likes this idea and is proposing to phase in the cost shift over four years.

But his proposal has met resistance from legislators, who say it would result in increased property taxes. A bipartisan majority of House members, including Rep. Jerry Long, R-Streator, has signed on to a resolution opposing the cost shift.

The resolution's sponsor is Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, whose suburban district is among the wealthiest in the state. He has worked with the Illinois Education Association, the state's biggest teachers union, to fight pension shift proposals.

"McSweeney and the IEA are protecting the dysfunctional system that preferences the wealthiest school districts in the state," Dabrowski said. "Districts like New Trier can pay ever-higher salaries and provide bigger perks, because they don't bear the cost of the resulting pensions."

'Shameful' action

In an email to The Times, Dabrowski said it was "shameful" that McSweeney was working with the IEA to "keep the status quo in place." He said property taxes could be reduced by such things as consolidating school districts and ending the practice of districts picking up teachers' share of pension costs.
In a statement to The Times, McSweeney cited the expected property tax increase.
"The pension cost shift is a Speaker (Michael) Madigan idea that I have opposed for a number of years," he said. "The Madigan-Rauner pension cost shift would result in a massive property tax increase. I'm glad that a majority of House members agree with me that the pension cost shift property increase is a bad idea."
An IEA statement to The Times noted the effects on local taxes, but didn't discuss the disparity between rich and poor districts.
“Governor Rauner's proposed pension cost shift would harm every student, school district and community in the state of Illinois," the statement said. "Rauner's idea is a direct attack on public education. Instead of giving our school districts the additional money they so desperately need, the governor would rather take money from our children and hand our school districts a massive bill. On top off that, the pension shift would have a domino effect causing property taxes to go up all across the state as school districts struggle to figure out how to pay for Rauner's plan."
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