Federal agency sues Urbana school district over caps on teacher raises

Federal agency sues Urbana school district over caps on teacher raises

URBANA — A federal agency has filed a lawsuit against Urbana schools, alleging the district violated age-discrimination laws by limiting salary increases for teachers over age 45.

Lawyers for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the district's practice of limiting salary increases for those teachers was a result of an "unlawful" provision in a collective-bargaining agreement between the district and the Urbana Education Association.

That provision stipulates that raises for teachers who are within 10 years of retirement eligibility are capped at 6 percent of their salary from the previous year. The EEOC argues that constitutes age discrimination.

Urbana Superintendent Don Owen said the filing wasn't a surprise.

"We've been communicating with the EEOC about this matter for more than a year," he told News-Gazette Media on Monday. "Basically, there was an EEOC investigation and we shared with them everything that we had — notes from when this was negotiated; everything we had about this, we shared."

The suit dates back to an Aug. 9, 2016, grievance filed by Urbana Middle School teacher Chuck Koplinski against the district. In it, Koplinski alleged that he had been denied raises commensurate with experience and professional development on the basis of age.

At the time of filing, Koplinski was 52 and within 10 years of retirement eligibility. It was because of his age, the EEOC argues, that he was denied $4,994 in earnings from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years despite meeting various criteria for raises.

"If Koplinski were aged 40 instead of age 50 when he completed the post-graduate classes, that would have entitled him to more than a 6 percent salary increase and he would have received his full raise," EEOC regional attorney Gregory Gochanour said. "Instead, his raise was capped at 6 percent."

The district's official response, signed by Owen, denied the original grievance. The district contended that provisions in its agreement with the union did not violate the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and such an interpretation was too narrow.

"Whether or not the creditable earnings limitation is applicable depends upon a teacher being within 10 years of eligibility for retirement under the Teachers' Retirement System," the district wrote. "This is partially an age factor and partially a service factor. ... Moreover, as defense to any ADEA claim, the 6 percent language would constitute a reasonable factor other than age as its primary factor is the avoidance of additional TRS contributions or penalties, not to limit salary increases strictly on the basis of age."

Like other districts in the state, Urbana hoped to avoid penalties initiated by a 2005 law that sought to punish those that "spiked" teacher or administrator pay in the last few years before retirement. Prior to that law, some districts increased the pay of such teachers or administrators, which resulted in the state providing them with higher pension payouts.

Earlier this year, Gov. Bruce Rauner lowered that cap to 3 percent in what he called an effort to stabilize the pension system.

"Given the language in our collective-bargaining agreement, we do not believe that language constitutes age discrimination," Owen said.

The EEOC, however, disagrees.

"Urbana cannot try to avoid making a (pension) contribution required by state law by limiting the salaries of older teachers because of their age," said Julianne Bowman, director of the EEOC's Chicago District Office.

Owen said other districts across the state are grappling with similar issues and each is trying to figure out the best way to navigate the law.

"I've been talking to superintendents across the state who have gone through this issue this spring, some of whom are currently negotiating right now," he said "That TRS threshold has been one of the biggest issues" in union negotiations. "... I do think the courts need to bring some clarity for the sake of the TRS, for the sake of school districts and school boards, and for the sake of teachers in this state."

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