Retired Illinois Educators Taking Home Millions in Pensions

Retirement can be lucrative for some former Illinois educators who are taking home pensions from the state’s Teachers Retirement System. The top pension earner this year is Lawrence A. Wyllie, an indicted former superintendent of Lincoln-Way High School District 210, who stands to make $321,443 this year. 

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In September, Wyllie pleaded not guilty to federal fraud charges. Prosecutors alleged that he steered taxpayer money to personal pet projects, misused millions in bond money and illegally cashed out $30,000 in unused sick days and a retirement bonus.  If convicted, Wyllie lose all of his TRS pension.

Second on the list is former New Trier Superintendent Henry S. Bangser, who will pocket $312,460 from his pension. He retired at age 57 and has already collected nearly $3 million in retirement.  Number three is Gary Catalani, former Wheaton Warrenville District 200 superintendent who later held a superintendent job in Arizona. He’ll pocket $310,070 this year.

Chicago Tonight submitted a records request for the top 200 pension earners in TRS. (Download the list.) Every annuitant is well into the six figures, with the last person on the list standing to make $190,675. Many of the top earners took advantage of loopholes used to boost their retirement, like calculating unused vacation and sick days, and big raises in their final years into the calculation of their pension.

Some annuitants, like Reginald L. Weaver, who will earn $289,745 this year, was able to base his pension off of his salary as head of the National Education Association, which paid him a substantially higher salary than he made as a teacher. That loophole allowed public sector workers to be paid a pension based upon their salary as a union official and has been closed.

The payouts come as The Teachers Retirement System teeters toward insolvency. It is currently 40 percent funded, and Illinois taxpayers will shell out $4.09 billion in 2018, with 80 percent of that going to pay down the unfunded liability and 20 percent to pay current benefits.

The TRS is the largest of the state pension systems, that collectively are at least $130 billion underfunded and the main driver of the state’s worst in the nation credit rating. At the same time, over 17,000 public sector retirees are making six-figure retirement salaries, according to an analysis by Taxpayers United of America, a group that has called for constitutional amendments drastically cutting back pensions. 

But the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability says the main driver of Illinois’ pension crisis is the chronic underfunding of pension payments. Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation says both are factors, but the generous annual raises that retirees get compound the problem.

“The 3 percent compounded annual automatic increase is what puts Illinois apart from every other state,” Msall said. “No other state offers that and doesn’t fund it.”

Msall acknowledges that lawmakers have acted to close a lot of the loopholes that led to the high payouts, but that the system is irreparably broken.

“The most damaging part is ... [the] eroded public’s confidence that the pension was a reward for hardworking people,” Msall said. “It is an insider game. Even with the pension reforms. Providing anyone a six-figure defined benefit that goes up 3 percent every year is ridiculous. That is not a pension. That is basically a deferred compensation lottery.”

But teachers union representatives say they are unfairly being vilified for pension problems that teachers themselves did not create.

“The overwhelming majority of teachers and staff earn a modest pension in their retirement and do not collect Social Security,” said Aviva Bowen spokesperson for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “Pension benefits did not cause Illinois’ funding problem and cutting them wouldn’t solve it. More importantly, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that it’s unconstitutional.”

Another driver is the disconnect between school districts that set pensions and taxpayers that pay them. Administrators have chronically offered generous pension boosters to coax educators into retirement, but since the state of Illinois pays and administers the system, local districts are off the hook in terms of coming up with enough funding to meet their promises.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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