Several dozen teachers, both current and retired, rallied outside House Republican Leader Tom Cross’ office in Plainfield Wednesday with one message: Don’t mess with our pensions.
Organized by Educators United for Strong Public Schools and partner Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, the event was held in protest of proposed changes that some educators fear would gut the pension system.
Dennis Grosskopf, president of the Minooka Education Association and former Will County Democratic Party chairman, said teachers just want to make sure their voices are heard.
“We’re turning in a petition asking for hearings on any pension changes,” he said, pointing out that lawmakers held weeks of hearings before voting on legislative redistricting last year.
“They haven’t done so on pensions,” Grosskopf said. “The public has to have input."
According to the Associated Press, Illinois has $83 billion in unfunded pension liability, with more than half – $44 billion — from the Teachers Retirement System. Many of the demonstrators said they believe proposed pension reforms would free the state of the financial burden, at the expense of teachers.
“We did our part for many years,” said Theresa Wiedman, a retired Oswego District 308 teacher. “It’s not our fault that we’re in this bind,” she added, noting that Illinois teachers pay 9.4 percent of their salaries into the pension fund.
“We haven’t missed a dime,” said Greg Bouchard, an English teacher at Plainfield Central High School. “It’s not reform, it’s thievery … It’s about them trying to cheat and steal and not pay what they owe.”
Todd Mertz, a teacher at Neuqua Valley High School in Indian Prairie District 204, said rally organizers chose Cross’ office in part because Cross was a sponsor of Senate Bill 512, a reform bill that would have required state employees to pay significantly more into their pensions, or pay the same amount but receive lower benefits.
“Cross is important because he really wants to slam us,” Mertz said.
Another pension reform suggestion, supported by Gov. Pat Quinn, would shift the burden for paying out pensions onto local school districts.
Joni Lindgren, spokeswoman for EUSPS and a retired West Aurora teacher, led a contingent into Cross’ office, where they presented staff with the petitions. According to Grosskopf, more than 500 signatures were collected in print and online.
The group also attempted to reach Cross, who was in Springfield, by phone.
Though he did not speak to the demonstrators, Cross issued a statement to Patch, saying he wants to hear what the teachers have to say.
“Over the last year I have received hundreds of phone calls, emails, letters and visits to my office regarding the issue of pension reform,” Cross said. “I have tried my best to personally respond. I always welcome and appreciate my constituents’ opinions and concerns regarding the tough issues we are dealing with at the capitol in Springfield.”
Joshua Wessell, district communications director at Cross’ Plainfield office, brought bottled water out to the demonstrators.
“They’re welcome here,” he said. “We hope they know that. We want them to know they’re being heard.”
Chanting slogans including “Keep our pensions,” the demonstrators stood at the intersection of Lockport and Des Plaines streets, cheering each time a motorist honked a horn at them.
Mertz said he wants to see legislators find new funding sources for pensions rather than gutting the system.
“They have not paid their full share [into the pension system] since 1953,” he said, suggesting making the switch from a flat tax to a graduated income tax system and expanding gaming as possible ways to increase revenue. “We’ve made sacrifices over the years and now they’re saying, ‘Too bad.’ There’s no shared sacrifice — it’s all on teachers’ backs.”