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Editorial: State needs to step in to help CPS’ bleak budget outlook

Updated: August 26, 2013 4:15PM

The leaders of the Chicago public schools are neither compulsive liars nor are they withholding a pot of cash that could save the schools, despite what critics and screamers said at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

That much is clear from the $5.6 billion budget the CPS administration proposed Wednesday, a budget weighed down by a massive $405 million increase in teacher pension costs. It’s balanced using $700 million in reserves, most of which is unlikely to be replenished. For next year, CPS is anticipating an initial deficit of $914 million, anchored by another $600 million pension payment. As if on cue, Moody’s Investors Service affirmed the bleak outlook with another credit downgrade Wednesday.

Despite this, CPS administrators have been evasive about how deeply budget cuts would hurt the classroom. On Wednesday, they finally revealed that school-based instructional budgets have been cut by $68 million, or 3.5 percent, from last year.

As a result, they’ve failed to rally potential allies — teachers, parents and students — to help find more revenue and to create the political pressure needed to cut pension benefits to a level CPS can afford.

Instead, CPS is the constant whipping boy — blamed for the cuts it has little choice but to make.

On Wednesday, there was a concerted effort to change that tide.

“The pain teachers and children are feeling is real,” Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said before offering a plea for help from local school councils, elected officials and parents in getting pension and revenue relief from Springfield and, possibly, the city.

But beyond that, no specifics. What kind of pension reform? What kind of revenue relief?

Byrd-Bennett wouldn’t say, so we will: CPS does not have enough money to run even a bare-bones school system.

To deal with CPS’ structural deficit, it needs state legislators to reduce teacher pension benefits — by lowering cost-of-living increases and other changes — to a manageable level. As for long-term revenue solutions, the state could consider a progressive income tax and a more equitable funding system for schools and Chicago could declare a TIF surplus, consider temporarily lifting the property tax cap and a tax levy dedicated to teachers’ pensions.

The facts on CPS’ side, many laid out in its proposed budget, are powerful:

♦ Despite cutting administrative costs significantly over the last several years, CPS’ expenses grew by about $464 million this year, due to the pension increase and $93 million in contractual salary increases. From this base next year, CPS anticipates another $104 million in expenses and a decline in revenue.

♦ CPS, wisely, wants to continue investing where it can and not only cutting, but also opting to spend on full-day kindergarten, to try to enhance neighborhood schools and on more options for dropouts.

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