Students, parents and teachers at Lincoln Elementary School, 1111 Grove Ave., are mobilizing to try to retain the school’s longtime principal, Cathy Hamilton, who was set to retire at the end of this school year.

But Hamilton asked district officials to push back her retirement another three years after the state of Illinois defunded the Teachers Retirement System Early Retirement Option, eliminating a key pension benefit. 

According to the Illinois Education Association, the ERO allowed Illinois teachers to retire before they reach 60 years old without being penalized. In July, however, the state legislature allowed the ERO program to automatically expire, in part, because too few teachers took advantage of it. Last year, the IEA said, only 150 educators used the program. 

In light of the state’s decision, Hamilton approached District 97 administration to request pushing back her retirement for another three years, so that she can retire with a higher pension. Administrators, however, told Hamilton no, according to a statement issued by Lisa Magnuson, Lincoln School PTO’s co-principal. 

According to a statement released by the D97 Supt. Carol Kelley, Hamilton submitted a request to the district in January 2013 to retire under the ERO in June 2017. The school board approved that request in February 2013. 

“The board authorized the payment of retirement benefits for Ms. Hamilton over a four-year period that was based upon her decision to voluntarily retire from the district in June of 2017,” the district noted. “These benefits included a requirement that her retirement in 2017 was “irrevocable” and could not be rescinded.”

The district’s statement added that the ERO’s sunset “was common knowledge among members of the educational community here in Illinois” and that the Teachers’ Retirement System included information about the sunset in its bulletins. 

More than 40 parents, students, teachers and community members attended a regular board meeting on Nov. 15 to urge the district to retain Hamilton, even if, as at least one person conceded in public comment, it means doing something unprecedented. 

During public comments, numerous people argued that the board should not allow the state’s decision-making to negatively affect Hamilton, who was universally praised for her leadership. 

Debbie Cooper, a teacher at Lincoln, said that she and her colleagues had been preparing themselves for Hamilton’s departure. Now that she is reconsidering that decision, however, they believe that Hamilton might as well close out her career at Lincoln. If the district decides against allowing Hamilton to stay on, the principal would have to get a job elsewhere, Cooper said.

 “Lincoln Elementary is a special place — with warm and caring faculty and staff, a committed network of parents and guardians and wonderful students — and Cathy Hamilton is at the heart of this incredible culture and community,” Magnuson’s statement said. 

Hamilton has been the principal at Lincoln for nearly 15 years and has worked at the school in other capacities for nearly 30 years. 

“The board and I have greatly appreciated the thoughtful insights and passionate perspectives that people on both sides of this issue have shared with us during the past couple of weeks,” Kelley’s statement noted.

“Please be assured that the board will take the time to review and consider all of the available information prior to making a final decision regarding this situation.”

Hamilton declined to comment for this story. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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