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Despite raid on CPS reserve funds, mayor says ‘I’m not kicking the can down the road’

Updated: August 11, 2012 6:19AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ridiculed his predecessor for selling off Chicago parking meters, spending the proceeds to hold the line on taxes and postponing Chicago’s financial day of reckoning.

Why then, is he allowing his handpicked school team to “kick the can down the road,” as the mayor likes to put it, at the Chicago Public Schools?

On Monday, Emanuel returned from a week-long summer vacation to face the music about a $5.7 billion school budget that relies on completely wiping out the school system’s $349 million in reserve funds. That’s the most drastic raid on CPS reserve funds in 17 years.

The budget also includes two percent pay raises for teachers who will be asked to work a 20 percent longer workday and school year while depriving teachers of so-called “step” and “lane” increases for experience and additional education.

Emanuel had already stripped teachers of a previously negotiated four percent pay raise.

The mayor was asked how he justifies “kicking the can down the road” at CPS when he has criticized former Mayor Richard M. Daley for doing the very same thing at City Hall.

“A lot of people were kicking the can down the road when it came to our kids’ education — locking our kids into the shortest school day and shortest school year in the country. I wasn’t kicking that can down the road any longer,” the mayor said.

“A lot of people were kicking the can down the road as it relates to pre-K for our children. We … added 6,000 children to our pre-K program, the best investment you can make in a child’s education. We’ve given parents more choices in the system. We didn’t kick the can down the road that way.”

Emanuel said he’s grappling with two issues simultaneously: making the investments needed to ensure “educational excellence” and parental choice and reversing a “set of fiscal positions that were unsustainable.”

The mayor argued that he has made the tough choices needed to confront both challenges.

“We had the distinct honor of having the shortest school day and shortest school year of any major city in the country, which shortchanged our children. And I put a stop to that. I’m not kicking the can down the road any longer,” he said.

“In the last fourteen months, I’ve taken a half-billion dollars … out of the central office … and invested it in the classrooms and the type of investments we needed to do for our children. … So, while we are dealing with the fiscal issue, I’m also making sure that we don’t continue to repeat the educational shortchanging of our children. …We’re doing both of those simultaneously.”

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall has argued that the $349 million reserve fund raid would “expose the system to catastrophe” next year, when a pension relief package is due to expire and the CPS deficit is expected to balloon to $1 billion.

Emanuel was asked how he could condone taking CPS reserves down to zero when a $1 billion deficit looms. He changed the subject.

“Maybe you think it’s responsible to be known as having the shortest school day and school year in the country. … Maybe you think it’s responsible to cut kids from early childhood education,” he said.

“While other cities are actually shortening their school year, Chicago is gonna lengthen its school day and school year. While other cities have cut their early childhood education, Chicago is adding kids to it. Other schools have cut back after school programs and activities. We added 20,000 children to that this summer alone. Those are the responsible things to do, and that’s what I’m fighting for while I deal with the fiscal issues.”

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