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How will CPS pay for a new contract after strike ends?

A woman pushes stroller past group public school teachers picketing outside Amundsen High School Monday Sept. 10 2012 Chicago. The

A woman pushes a stroller past a group of public school teachers picketing outside Amundsen High School, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, in Chicago. The school is one of more than 140 schools in the Chicago Public Schools' "Children First" contingency plan, which feeds and houses students for four hours during the teachers strike started by the Chicago Teachers Union Monday. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

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Updated: October 14, 2012 1:56PM

As school and union leaders wrestled over a new teachers contract Tuesday, a huge, nagging question loomed in the background:

Once they finish, how will Chicago Public Schools pay for any new contract they forge?

There’s no easy give in the budget, because CPS already depleted its rainy day “reserve’’ fund to help plug a $665 million deficit this school year.

And if officials eke out enough cuts to pay for the cost of teacher raises this school year, a $1 billion deficit — and no “reserve’’ cushion — awaits them next school year, when a pension relief package expires.

“I think the elephant in the room — and what every parent and taxpayer wants to know is — how is CPS going to pay for this contract, not only this year, but in future years,” said Robin Steans, executive director of the school advocacy group Advance Illinois.

“Given the huge projected deficits, one has to wonder what sort of painful program cuts and trade-offs our children may be facing.’’

The raises in the last teacher contract deal that was publicly rejected Sunday night would have cost $320 million over four years, and given the average teacher a 16 percent pay hike over that time, CPS officials say.

The first year tab for the raises alone would have been $80 million, although other elements of the contract could have saved the system money and knocked down that tab, said CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

Whatever deal is finally reached, CPS will have to make roughly an equivalent amount of cuts to pay for it, but one easy answer — raising class size — is not in the mix of options it’s considering to save money, Carroll said.

Doing so would be hugely unpopular with parents and also with teachers, who say bigger class sizes could impact instruction, as well as, ultimately, their ratings on new teacher evaluations — a subject of huge contention in ongoing talks.

However, Carroll insisted, “We are protecting and maintaining class size.’’

With enrollment on a decline, one source of savings could be the shutdown of half-empty, underutilized schools, said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group.

“CPS definitely has to be looking at right-sizing their schools,’’ Msall said. “The focus should be on eliminating under-utilized schools.’’

However, Carroll noted that closing or consolidating schools could only begin next school year and would not generate the savings needed to pay for teacher raises this school year. Asked about whispers that the system plans to close 100 schools, Carroll said, “there’s just no truth to that.’’

Carroll conceded the system will have to make “some very painful cuts that we would otherwise like to avoid,’’ but could not provide any examples. “That’s a decision the budget team is wrestling with now,’’ she said.

Rod Estvan, education policy analyst with the disability advocacy group Access Living, urged Emanuel to get creative to cover teacher raises.

To squeeze through the year, Estvan said, the mayor could, temporarily at least, not charge CPS for city services such as garbage pickup — which was free until a few years ago — and police stationed in high schools.

Last school year, CPS caught heat from teachers when it cancelled the teachers promised 4 percent raise, at a cost of $80 million, and gave an extra $70 million to Chicago police that was not contractually required.

CPS officials said Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided CPS had been underpaying the police department for years, so in 2011 CPS agreed to pay police $25 million instead of $8 million a year, and to apply the new tab retroactively, dating back to 2009.

That sleight of hand helped plug a budget hole in another city agency, and similar maneuvering could help CPS in a pinch, Esvtan said.

“There’s a bunch of other ways the city could absorb the costs,’’ Esvtan said. “They [CPS officials] are not alone in this.

“If the mayor decides he wants to make a deal, he can mobilize city assets for CPS..

“They [CPS officials] hurt CPS when they took that money and gave it to the CPD. If the mayor can do it one way, he can do it the other way. That’s a decision he has to make.’’

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