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Mayor Emanuel blames Legislature’s inaction on pensions for school budget cuts

Mayor Rahm Emanuel March 2013.  |  Sun-Times Library

Mayor Rahm Emanuel in March 2013. | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: July 27, 2013 6:31AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday blamed the Legislature’s failure to grant pension relief to the Chicago Public Schools and resolve the pension crisis for devastating school budget cuts that threaten the enrichment programs he touted as cornerstones of his longer school day.

“Your own paper and you have written about the fact that we have deferred choices for years and that this day of reckoning would come to our classrooms, which is why I pushed so hard for pension reform,” said Emanuel, who was in Israel when 48 schools closed and surviving schools got wind of their bottom lines.

“I went to Springfield [in May, 2012] and I said, `If we don’t reform our pension, there are gonna be some very difficult choices to be made. I warned everybody….I said, `This is a critical decision.’ …[Lawmakers said], `Not now. We won’t deal with this.’ Small problems became big problems. When we all debate the choices around pensions, that’s exactly what’s happening.”

The mayor noted that nearly 45 percent of the $1 billion shortfall at the Chicago Public Schools is tied to pension payments.

“This has been covered by all of you about the consequences of inaction, deferring choices, kicking them down the can and not dealing with them. So we have to get pension reform so we can make the right set of choices, rather than the wrong set of choices,” the mayor said.

Emanuel refused to comment on the proposal by Whitney Young high school principal Joyce Kenner to begin charging parents for an optional seventh period for their kids.

“I’m not gonna [zero in on] one school because there are 600- plus schools and talk about each of the choices. That’s not the right way to do it and you know that,” he said.

“What is the right thing to do is to make sure we deal with the real problem, which is around the pension and not act as if that’s not the real problem here and the real challenge to make sure we can make the investments we need in our children.”

The mayor bristled when asked how he feels about some schools cutting art, music, gym and other enrichment programs touted as cornerstones of his longer school day.

“What I touted was using the time for academics and education and enrichment and a lot of schools will continue to do that,” he said.

“The [extra one] hour and 15 minutes exists as an opportunity for every principal and every teacher to use for their individual schools. And I will continue to push to make sure it’s a complete education. I will continue to push that we also make the tough choices that exist in the fiscal area.”

The gut-wrenching closing of 48 schools that won’t reopen in August were only part of the pain Emanuel missed during his week-long trip to Israel to celebrate his daughter Leah’s bat mitzvah.

Some 855 CPS staffers at closing or turnaround schools were pink slipped late last week, most of them teachers who didn’t have the tenure or performance ratings to merit following their students to new schools. The teachers who do have the years and scores to be considered won’t find out until mid-July if there are available jobs for them.

Despite massive school closings, drastic budget cuts – stemming from a new “student-based” way of allocating money to schools based on the number of children enrolled – trickled out last week, angering parents and forcing principals to consider more layoffs.

CPS, which projects a $1 billion deficit, said the new budgeting system affords principals more autonomy in hiring and programs, and that figures available are drafts – final budgets won’t be available until July.

As of Friday, the parent group Raise Your Hand had identified at least 100 schools reporting more than $70 million in total cuts. Director Wendy Katten said she’d found only a few whose budgets had gone up.

“What was the point in extending the school day?” asked Jonathan Harris, 42, a Burley Elementary parent protesting CPS budget cuts outside the Thompson Center on Friday. His Lake View school lost $600,000 that will result in no more art and Spanish and physical education reduced to once every two weeks.

And students at the prestigious Whitney Young were told they’d be offered just six classes next year instead of the current seven, with an option to pay $500 for a seventh to help pay for additional teachers. The school’s principal also plans to cut things like its writing center, ACT prep classes and many electives.

Several Local School Councils, including Young’s, even voted to reject their proposed budgets because they undermined the schools’ ability to provide a high quality education.

The Chicago Teachers Union blasted the cuts, saying they “shift blame to our local schools and principals are forced to choose between keeping teachers and educating our students. If this continues, public education will no longer be a public good but rather something parents have to pay for out of pockets. And, in the case of Whitney Young only wealthier families will be able to afford it.”

Earlier this month, Emanuel refused to rule out a worst-case scenario that his handpicked school team has already discussed with legislative leaders: asking the General Assembly to lift the property tax cap to pave the way for an even bigger increase than would otherwise be allowed.

It happened after the Legislature adjourned without easing 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.

The decision to seek a pension holiday appeared to run contrary to Emanuel’s demand for reduced retirement benefits, instead of compounding the problem by postponing pension payments.

But the mayor doesn’t view it that way.

“Paying $500 million or paying $350 million a year is not a holiday by any stretch of the imagination. And it means that if you’re paying that, you’re not doing other things,” the mayor said earlier this month.

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