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      Rural Ill. schools brace for budget cuts

      By Stephanie Fryer | Illinois Statehouse News

      SPRINGFIELD - The notion of Illinois school districts shouldering more of the costs of teacher pensions has small town administrators preparing for deep cuts, but the lack of legislative action is making preparing tough.

      We are all in waiting game right now, Jonathan Green , superintendent for Pinckneyville Community High School , said.

      Gov. Pat Quinn said in his plan to overhaul the state TMs public pension system that he wants school districts to pay more toward their employees TM pensions. Right now teachers pay about 9.4 percent of their salaries into the Teachers Retirement System , which the state matches. School districts pay in less than 1 percent, but they set pay and benefits for teachers.

      Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson added that Quinn wants the school districts to have a stake in the contracts they negotiate.

      The governor TMs proposal came ahead of a $5.2 billion public pension payment next year, which is about $1 billion higher than this year TMs payment. For the upcoming pension payment, three-fourths would go toward downstate and suburban teachers, as well as community college and university employees, Anderson said.

      At this time, the Legislature has not drafted a proposal about shifting the costs to local districts.

      It TMs all uncertainty as we plan for next year, of what will happen with pensions, Cliff McClure, superintendent for Paxton-Buckley-Loda Community Unit School District 10 , said. I heard it might be 3 percent, it might be 7.65 (percent) and it might come in at 1 percent each year.

      Districts could increase property taxes, but small town administrators said raising taxes isn TMt always an option in a rural district.

      If you have a bigger tax base, you TMre bringing in more money and you may be able to cover it, said Green. If we were a growing community, with a growing business tax base, it would be different.

      Without tax increases, school administrators said they TMll have to make cuts in the classroom.

      Years of underfunding, the Great Recession and pension sweeteners, such as cost-of-living increases have caused the state TMs unfunded pension liability to jump to $83 billion. The Teachers Retirement System is responsible for $44 billion of that.

      The state has used the pension monies for years without making their required payments and as a result, we the educators and school districts that actually have done our parts get blamed and end up on the receiving end of drastic changes, said Kristin School, superintendent of Mendota Elementary School District 289 . For Mendota, this cost shift would mean finding an extra $144,000. This comes when the district is operating a budget deficit and owed nearly $300,000 by the state in overdue bills.

      Cuts so far for the Mendota district include limiting the working hours of teacher aides and custodians and having current teachers take over classes and duties handled by educators who leave or retire. At risk next are bus rides for sport teams and preschool education.

      Green and McClure also said time frames outlined in state law don't help during tough financial times. This is partially due to district administrators having to notify teachers of re-employment 45 days before the end of the school year. If a district is operating in the red, cuts will have to be made before administrators know what they will receive in state aid for the upcoming school year.

      It TMs an evil stew so to speak. You have all these type of things that go into the stew from late state payments, cuts in transportation and now possibly pensions, Green said. You put all the parts in, make necessary changes to the recipe, and hope it tastes good locally.