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Aldermen not warming up to proposed school property tax hike

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard rings ceremonial bell start new school year William Rainey Harper High School 6520 S.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard rings ceremonial bell to start the new school year at William Rainey Harper High School, 6520 S. Wood Street, Monday, August 8, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: September 10, 2011 12:47AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration tried Monday to convince aldermen to swallow a $150 million property tax increase for the Chicago Public Schools, but it was a tough sell.

Emanuel has promised to erase a $635.7 million city budget shortfall without raising taxes, arguing that he cannot, in good conscience, ask taxpayers to put more money “into a system that hasn’t been reformed.”

On Monday, some aldermen made the same argument about the Chicago Public Schools after attending a series of 45-minute briefings on the record property tax increase at City Hall.

The hike would add $84 to an average home worth $250,000. It marks the first time in four years that CPS is seeking to raise taxes for schools to the maximum allowed by law. The hike apparently is aggravated by a nearly five-fold increase in a Public Building Commission levy that CPS controls that will pull in $53 million, up from $11 million previously, to help CPS pay the debt service on school construction bonds.

Aldermen are not convinced Emanuel’s handpicked school team led by CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has done all it can to cut spending before turning to Chicago homeowners already struggling to make ends meet.

“They have not shown clear and convincing evidence that they deserve a property tax increase because of all the waste and inefficiency still in the system,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).

Fioretti predicted “resistance all over the city.”

“We have such a fragile housing market. Raising taxes will only add to the foreclosure problem and send more of the middle class elsewhere. People have already been leaving the city because they don’t feel the central office has provided the kinds of programs necessary. I’m not convinced they’ve cut the right stuff or that they’ve cut enough.”

Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, flatly declared, “I don’t agree with any property tax increase, especially when our residents are having such a hard time.”

Over the years, Chicago aldermen have raised periodic objections to school property tax increases before following through on their statutory obligation to approve the Board of Education’s annual levy.

Legally, they have no choice. Politically, it’s another story. In order to build public support for the massive increase, Emanuel must enlist support from the City Council.

“We have nothing to do with this. This is the Board of Education’s decision and the administration’s decision,” Thomas said.

“Any tax increase is supposed to be a last resort, and they’ve got to revaluate whether this truly is a last resort. But, most of my colleagues — we don’t like it. Why are we still relying on real estate taxes to pay for education? We should be relying on the income tax. It’s more equitable across the board.”

Aldermen Nick Spostato (36th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) voiced similar concerns.

Not all aldermen came away from the briefings unconvinced about the need for new revenue.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) pointed to the “huge decrease” in federal funding for CPS, much of it expiring federal stimulus money.

“The reality is after having held [the line on] teacher salaries, where else is there to cut? Seventy percent of the dollars are allocated for schools,” Pawar said.

“You’re talking about cutting police officers. It looks like they’ve gone through and weeded out [waste and inefficiency] and made cuts. At some point, revenue is gonna be an issue. In order for us to maintain programming, a property tax increase is something we have to support.”

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) noted that the increase amounts to $84 or just $7 more a month for the owner of a home valued at $250,000.

“If it’s gonna improve public education, then it’s worth it. If we don’t have a good public education, then people leave the city. We need to keep them in the city and convince them that the public schools are worth sending your children to,” he said.

“There comes a time when we have to bite the bullet. When it comes to the city budget and the CPS budget, we may very well be at that time.’

Emanuel had no public appearances on Monday, although his staff said Friday the mayor supported the maximum tax hike for schools in the wake of hefty administrative cutbacks. He is expected to address the record property tax increase for schools at an unrelated news conference on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, his Schools CEO, Brizard defended the tax hike for the first time publicly Monday.

“We went to taxpayers after we did everything we could to scrub money from central office and the back office,” Brizard said after an event at Harper High School marking the opening of classes for year-round schools. Official data indicates, however, that at least $92 million of administrative cuts are still a work in progress, to be identified in the next 60 days.

“There is pain in the budget,” Brizard conceded, “but the pain was kept away from kids as much as possible.”

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