Chicago Public Schools’ teachers will need to give up some benefits during upcoming pension system negotiations, or run the risk of “thousands and thousands” of layoffs, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said Monday.
Cullerton’s remarks, delivered at a luncheon of the City Club, a public affairs forum frequented by civic leaders and elected officials, come as the legislature once again prepares to address spiraling public worker pension liabilities – this time Chicago Public Schools’ underfunded system.
“Chicago Public Schools have a problem and we need to act now,” Cullerton said. “I know for a fact that forging a solution that works — and is meaningful — is possible.”
Cullerton said the public schools’ annual pension payment is expected to swell $417 million over the amount paid last year, to $613 million.
“The bulk of the money comes, likely, out of the classroom resulting in drastic teacher layoffs and increased class sizes,” Cullerton said. “That’s not acceptable for a world class city like ours.”
Union officials said they are open to working with Cullerton. But ultimately, additional revenue has to be part of the discussion, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said by phone later in the day.
“Frankly our solution to this problem has been that there needs to be some guaranteed revenue put back into the pension fund,” Sharkey said, adding that prior to 1995, the pension system had a locked-in stream of property tax revenue.
He added that Cullerton’s proposal, which would call for cuts and not a revenue increase, mimics an “idea that came from the board rooms” of corporate America.
“We’re not stupid. We think they are getting ready to apply the same tactics — austerity and cuts on the backs of retired public servants,” said Sharkey.
Cullerton declined to discuss specifics of any bill he ultimately would like to see passed by the legislature. But he said last year’s pension overhaul, which is slated to save $160 billion over 30 years, would provide a good framework. But he said he has lingering concerns about the viability of the pension overhaul because it is being challenged by the unions in court.
“We need a plan that is fair in its approach, has an improved chance of success in court, provides enough savings that future pension payments are manageable,” Cullerton said.