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Dip into TIF surplus to help schools, Progressive Caucus tells mayor

Ald. John Aren(45th | Sun-Times files

Ald. John Arena (45th | Sun-Times files

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Updated: August 24, 2013 6:20AM

The City Council’s Progressive Caucus demanded Monday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel scour Chicago’s 165 tax increment financing districts for surplus funds and use them to reverse some of the 3,000 layoffs at Chicago Public Schools.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) denounced as “wrong-headed” Emanuel’s decision to use $55 million in TIF funds to help build a basketball arena for DePaul University at a time when public schools across the city are losing teachers and support staff.

Waguespack further alleged that tens of thousands of dollars in TIF funds are being used to help build Divvy bike-sharing stations. The Near South TIF alone spent nearly $750,000 on city salaries, the alderman said.

“The public sentiment citywide is `stop doing what you’re doing.’ Reverse the layoffs of these teachers so that their kids have gym teachers, they have math teachers and they have art teachers,” Waguespack told a City Hall news conference.

“It’s not just schools on the South Side or the West Side. These are schools in the 32nd Ward, the 47th, up and down the lakefront. People are angry throughout the city.”

Ald. John Arena (45th) said Emanuel championed his vaunted longer school day as a vehicle to “enrich” the school curriculum and guarantee students the art and music that “leads to better outcomes” for kids.

“To walk back from that, say, `Give `em [a longer] day, but less programming’ and not have the experienced teachers there to execute it — we really have to look at what are our priorities and how are we spending our money,” Arena said.

“We have money in the TIF program. ... It’s time to put that money back into our classrooms and take a step back from this seemingly knee-jerk program of school closings, extended school day, large budget cuts school-after-school and getting rid of teachers and support staff.”

Waguespack and Arena were joined at Monday’s City Hall news conference by Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd); Roderick Sawyer (6th); Toni Foulkes (15th); Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and Nick Sposato (36th).

They plan to introduce an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that would apply to all TIF districts with revenues exceeding $1 million.

TIF revenues would be declared surplus if they are “not already required, pledged for specific projects, earmarked or otherwise designated for payment of or securing obligations” at the close of the year.

The aldermen acknowledged that raiding TIF surplus funds is a temporary fix that would only partially alleviate the current school crisis.

But they also suggested long-term solutions, including a “financial transaction tax” on LaSalle Street exchanges, closing corporate tax loopholes and renegotiating what Waguespack called “toxic” tax swaps.

In a recent report, Cook County Clerk David Orr disclosed that Chicago’s 165 TIF districts generated $457 million in revenue last year.

Under pressure from aldermen, former Mayor Richard M. Daley declared a $187 million TIF surplus, generating $90 million for the Chicago Public Schools. If Emanuel did the same again this year, it could easily generate “tens of millions” for cash-strapped schools, the aldermen said.

Last month, the Progressive Caucus came out swinging against “draconian” school budget cuts they warned would increase class size, reduce test scores and leave schools without “basic necessities that define a school.”

At the time, 850 school employees had been fired. Last week, another 2,100 Chicago Public School teachers and support staff were laid off.

Emanuel has insisted that the General Assembly gave his handpicked school board little choice when it adjourned without easing a $400 million increase in teacher pension payments bearing down on CPS.

The bill rejected by the General Assembly would have extended for two more years a so-called pension “holiday” that allowed CPS to pay just $196 million into the teachers retirement fund this year.

Those annual payments are scheduled to balloon to more than $612 million next year. But the failed bill would have eased those obligations — to $350 million next year and $500 million in 2015.

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