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Emanuel defends accounting gimmick in school budget

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday he signed off on a $6.8 billion school budget with an accounting gimmick right out of his predecessor’s playbook to keep cuts out of the classroom.

“New York City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia all get much, much more money-per-pupil than the city of Chicago. Close to about $1,500-a-student, if not more. Imagine if the State of Illinois wasn’t 50th out of 50” states in school funding, Emanuel said after groundbreaking ceremonies at riverfront office building.

“You act like that challenge just emerged. That challenge has been building. And this budget keeps those cuts away from the classroom.”

Emanuel has spent the last four years condemning former Mayor Richard M. Daley — without ever mentioning his name — for using one-time revenues, including asset sales, to put off Chicago’s financial day of reckoning.

But the $6.8 billion school budget unanimously approved by the Chicago Board of Education this week does that and more.

It not only raises property taxes by $33.5 million — the maximum allowed by law for the 16th time in 21 years. It relies on an accounting gimmick that banks on 14 months of property tax revenue to pay for 12 months of spending. It also banks hard on elusive pension reform from Springfield.

The Chicago Teachers Union has accused the mayor of playing politics with the school budget to get past a mayoral election that just might be a re-match between Emanuel and union president Karen Lewis.

The two political adversaries went toe-to-toe during the 2012 teachers strike.

“By using 14 months’ worth of revenue in this fiscal year, it pushes the problems of funding into next year — until after the election — and into a contract year,” said CTU Vice-President Jesse Sharkey.

On Thursday, Emanuel was asked how he justifies the accounting gimmick.

He argued that he had no choice when Illinois ranks 50th among 50 states in school funding and Chicago Public Schools has a pension crisis that still has not been solved.

“Chicago taxpayers pay for the pensions of suburban and Downstate teachers and their own teachers. We should be part of that system so Chicago taxpayers are not bearing the burden of pension costs twice,” the mayor said.

“So, the solution to this is working with Springfield to get the resources we need….The state has to be part of the solution on the fiscal side.”

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