Chicago teachers have been getting lessons in Illinois politics in recent weeks.
While state lawmakers have been away from Springfield for a short break, teachers in the city have been turning the tables. They’ve been getting a lesson in history, civics and, separate from civics, politics.
A group of current and retired teachers sat for a three-hour tutorial on how their pension is funded, why it's now so underfunded and what they can do about it.
Lesson number one: start calling state lawmakers. After they figured out who the leaders in Springfield even are, Bukola Bello, the lobbyist in Springfield for the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, told the teachers which politicians they should be calling.
“It’s an election year. Everyone gets that,” Bello said. “It’s an election year and because you have certain pressures from the mayor, certain individuals need more education than others. Wink wink.”
The Chicago Teachers Pension Fund is separate from the Chicago Teachers Union, although most union members get their retirement through it. And the pension fund is separate from the government, even though the public officials are the ones cutting the checks. That means the pension fund is stuck in the middle between the two sides that have been battling with each other about cutting retirement benefits.
During the training session, Bello kept reminding her students, the teachers, of this lesson in politics.
“Legislators are our friends. Why are legislators our friends? Because ultimately we need something from them. We need their support. We need a vote. We need them to protect your pensions,” she said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said Chicago teachers pensions are coming up on his lesson plan so the city’s finances can be stabilized.
But Kevin Huber, who heads the pension fund, says something else should happen first. He’s advocating for setting aside a tax levy so taxes go straight toward teacher’s pensions and not to the board of education, which distributes the cash. He also said the Chicago Board of Education should contribute to the pension fund monthly, not annually.
Huber said he’s training teachers how to talk to their lawmakers because they mean more to representatives than he does.
“When we get the actual voters, they’re more receptive,” he said. “Again, I can get meetings with all these people and I do, but they care about the vote.”
Last year, the governor and state lawmakers approved changes to state employees’ retirement benefits to save the government money, including suburban and downstate teachers. Unions representing those workers have sued over the plan, saying it hurts employees so much, it’s unconstitutional. The lawsuit is still in court.
Dick Ingram, who runs the Teachers Retirement System for those teachers, said while those bills were being negotiated, he had to stay out of the back-and-forth between the unions and the lawmakers and just make sure money was still coming into the system.
“We were gonna go broke unless there were changes made,” Ingram said. “We’re not in the business of suggesting what those changes might be, but we can certainly help explain what the impact of proposed legislation would be.”
Meantime, Debra McGhee, who sat through the three-hour training program at the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund and is retired from Bouchet International Academy in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, was ready to tell her story to her representative.
“We worked for this. This is ours and now you’re talking about taking it away. We contributed (to) this. We didn’t miss a payment,” McGhee said. “But you guys skipped out on where you’re supposed to be. So now we’re worried and we have to do something to try to put this back intact.”
McGhee said she’s nervous she’ll be retiring at the poverty line because of benefit cuts. Her training session came as pension funds representing Chicago teachers, firefighters and police officers wait and see whether Gov. Pat Quinn signs the pension bills sitting on his desk affecting other groups of Chicago city workers. Quinn has not said whether he will sign that legislation into law, but he’s been critical of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying he’d have to raise property taxes in the city to help pay for pensions.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.