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In education, unfunded mandates go both ways

School boards' end-of-career pay raises cause pensions to swell

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

SPRINGFIELD – For decades, the two dirtiest words in Illinois education were “unfunded mandates.”

Local school boards and administrators hate these orders that come from Springfield but don’t come with a check attached.

For example, this year Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed four new unfunded mandates pertaining to civics exams, concussions, suicide prevention, and discipline policies.

Since 2000, there have been more than 130 new, unfunded mandates that have affected the school districts across our state, WCIA-TV recently reported.

To be sure, the state of Illinois isn’t putting its money where its mouth is.

Back in the dark ages, when I was in high school, the unfunded mandate that administrators were griping about was called “consumer education.” I don’t remember anyone who wanted to be in that class. But we were stuck there for a semester because the lawmakers in Springfield said we had to.

And, of course, the physical education requirement is a perennial complaint among school districts. Illinois has one of the most comprehensive P.E. requirements in the nation. But for every hour a child spends playing softball, she isn’t in a classroom doing arithmetic or diagramming sentences.

Some argue that these decisions on what youngsters are taught are best left up to local educators to decide.

But here’s a dirty little secret about unfunded mandates: they flow both ways.

Illinois taxpayers are on the hook for the bulk of tax dollars spent on educator pensions.

So, when Calumet City’s school board decided to pay their superintendent $400,000 a year, folks in Galesburg, Alton, Kankakee and elsewhere in Illinois are chucking in dough for that fellow’s gold-plated pension.

Why? Because the Calumet City School Board sent an unfunded mandate to Springfield leaving all of the state’s taxpayers responsible for footing the bill.

When a school district agrees to pay an exorbitant salary, Illinois taxpayers follow up by paying an exorbitant pension.

Please keep in mind, the state has a total unfunded pension liability of $130 billion. We can’t afford to keep doing things the way they have always been done. Unfunded pension liabilities are the driving force behind the state’s income tax hikes under both Rauner and former Gov. Pat Quinn.

In Springfield, Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats blame Republicans for the state’s pension woes. The truth is, both groups are to blame.

But another group that bears responsibility is local school boards. For generations they have gamed the system by giving end-of-career pay raises to teachers contemplating retirement. They do this to artificially bump up pensions paid by the state.

Yes, that’s another unfunded pension mandate flowing to Springfield. One has to wonder whether it is the best public policy for the state’s taxpayers.

The General Assembly has done little to curb this practice. But it did pass and Rauner did sign a measure capping end-of-career pay raises at 3 percent. The state’s largest teacher’s union issued a press release this past week arguing the cap ought to be raised to 6 percent.

I can understand why they are calling for this. After all, it’s their job to advocate for their members. But is this what is best for the state’s taxpayers?

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.

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