By: Nick Binotti*
Usually, people think of a portion as part of a whole or a piece of something, like a slice of pie or your roommate’s share of the rent. Sometimes it can be considered as a single unit, such as “The portions at the Cheesecake Factory are huuuge.”
As reported in the Wednesday Oak Park/River Forest Journal, District 90 in River Forest agreed to a new three year contract with the teachers union, a contract containing what seems to be an innocuous clause regarding portions: “The Board will pick up a portion of each teacher’s required contributions to the TRS (Teachers’ Retirement System) in the same manner as it did in the 2016-17 school year…” This is what is commonly referred to as the “pension pick-up” whereby taxpayers pay some “portion” of a teacher’s 9% pension contribution. D90 is not alone in offering this benefit as other school districts also pick-up a “portion”. As you might recall, the Chicago Teachers Union blew a gasket last year when CPS wanted to end their 7% pension pick-up, a relic of a benefit from 35 years ago that ceased serving its intended purpose – originally given in exchange for a wage freeze – long ago.
So, what “portion” of the employees’ 9% pension contribution will D90 and its taxpayers pay this contract? 9%. The whole portion. Portions usually imply a small percentage of the whole. The contract doesn’t even say “significant portion”. In fact, this new contract merely references the old contract which is equally as vague (I had to submit a FOIA request to get the exact amount). Why not just come out and say taxpayers are paying the entire amount of their teachers’ pensions? Great marketing tool to attract new teachers, right?
Because as with most government contracts, transparency is not the goal. It is easy to hide the true cost of something when you don’t specify numbers. The state’s $120 billion pension liability is unmitigated proof of that. To give you an idea of how significant D90’s benefit is: A private sector worker, having to deduct from his paycheck 7.65% for social security and medicare and 9% for a 401(k) contribution, would have to gross $100,000 just to equal the take home pay of a D90 teacher with a gross salary of $80,000 and no such deductions, a whopping 25% premium. In a time of meager retirement savings and Social Security approaching insolvency, it’s easy to see why a school district would be a bit obscure with such a benefit. The optics of a “free” retirement – one that will easily top most taxpayers – probably wouldn’t go over well in school board meetings.
What makes this contractual vagueness even more concerning is that it was signed under the tenure of D90 school board president Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. That organization is essentially a union advocacy shop, as I described in an earlier article.
Put aside, for the moment, the deeply concerning fact that a board member representing the taxpayers on one side of the bargaining table earns his living from the dues money collected from the union members of the other side of the bargaining table. Why would he agree to such ambiguous wording in a legally binding contract, or anyone else on the board for that matter? Is this proper representation of the working families in the district?
The 100% pension pick-up in River Forest does predate Martire’s tenure there, but renewing it now, so opaquely, during the pension crisis we have, is the issue.
I have nothing against creative compensation for teachers. But if you cannot provide the basic details of a “portion” of your employee compensation package, then you probably shouldn’t be offering it. Leave the portions for the restaurant industry. As with the Cheesecake Factory, River Forest School District 90’s portions are huuuge!
*Nick Binotti is a politically independent, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, occasional blogger at Citizen Vs Machine.