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Mayor defends $41 million school property tax hike

After making an announcement about job growth economic development  Chicago  Mayor Rahm Emanuel  spoke about Supreme Court

After making an announcement about job growth and economic development in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke about the Supreme Court decision that Obamacare was constitutionally sound. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 30, 2012 6:24AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday defended his decision to authorize a $41 million school property tax increase — the second tax-to-the-max increase during his first year in office.

Emanuel likes to talk about holding the line on the city’s property tax levy — even though he balanced his first budget with $220 million in other taxes, fines and fees.

The same cannot be said of the mayor’s handpicked school board. With Emanuel’s blessing, the board has now raised property taxes by a grand total of $191 million in just one year.

On Thursday, the rookie mayor defended his decision to green-light that increase in the middle of a contentious battle with the Chicago Teachers Union that could culminate in the city’s first teachers strike since 1987.

Teachers have already authorized a strike by a nearly 90 percent vote.

“First of all, on my budget, we held the line on property taxes. Second, this is $28 for the whole year. Third, it protects the investments of early childhood education, class size, longer school day and parental choice by having made sure that we have magnet and other type of choices in the system,” he said.

Emanuel’s three talking points were the same as those Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale made in a press release announcing the $41 million property tax increase.

The bad news for Chicago homeowners was announced late Wednesday as media attention was diverted to the City Council’s approval of marijuana tickets.

The $41 million in new revenue will help CPS plug a budget shortfall as high as $700 million, including $114 million in lost federal and state funds.

Last year, Emanuel gave the Chicago Public Schools the green light to raise property taxes by a whopping $150 million. It marked the first time in four years that CPS had raised taxes to the maximum allowed by law.

At the time, the mayor argued that his handpicked school team had already made $400 million in bureaucratic cuts and that more money was needed to “protect the classroom.”

For a mayor who had argued that Chicago taxpayers were tired of being nickel-and-dimed to death, the bottom line was a massive increase that did more than nickel-and-dime struggling homeowners.

The record, $150 million property tax increase cost the owner of a home valued at $250,000 another $84-a-year.

“I said I was gonna protect the classroom. We not only protected the classroom, we’ve expanded educational choices and opportunities for parents [who] rely on the school system while other school systems are cutting back,” Emanuel said then.

“It’s not something I relish. It’s about the tough choices we have to do….We are making those tough choices and I believe that’s the right tough choice….I have no tolerance for an overblown bureaucracy and I have no tolerance for inefficiency….I think they’ve made the tough choices.”

The CTU and the school district have been wrangling since November over wages, benefits, language on class size, a plan to tie teacher pay to student test results and other issues.

Emanuel pushed for a change in state law that raised the strike authorization threshold to 75 percent, a benchmark so high, at least one education advocate with ties to the mayor predicted that it could never be met.

Instead, the teachers roared passed that benchmark, fueled by their anger against a mayor who stripped them of a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and tried to muscle through a longer school day.

Earlier this month, Emanuel acknowledged that 90 percent is a “huge number” for teachers to achieve in their strike authorization vote, but he’s holding out hope for a pre-strike settlement.

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