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Emanuel won’t rule out property tax, class size hikes as pension problem looms

Updated: June 5, 2013 9:38PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday defended his failed attempt to ease pension payments bearing down on the Chicago Public Schools and did not rule out increases in property taxes or class sizes after coming up empty-handed.

The surprise bill rejected by the Illinois 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.

Gov. Pat Quinn warned that he wouldn’t sign the Chicago school bill unless it was part of comprehensive pension reform. The Legislature subsequently adjourned without addressing either issue.

On Wednesday, Emanuel was asked whether a $1 billion school budget deficit could be eliminated without yet another up-to-the-limit property tax increase.

“The Chicago Public Schools is working through the issues. I can’t tell you today what their budget’s gonna be line-by-line. I know that the first priority is to protect the classroom and to protect our children’s education and to also find savings — as we have to pay for a full day of kindergarten — through administrative savings, as we have from Day One,” he said.

What about class size, which according to the contract with the Chicago Teachers Union, limits classrooms to 28 students for primary grades and 31 in upper elementary grades and high school?

“I just said, to protect the classroom,” he said.

Emanuel noted that his handpicked school team has already cut $600 million in administrative costs and that he passed two city budgets without raising property taxes.

“My goal is to make sure we get pension reform and continue to look through every part of the administrative and central office to find savings, so we don’t have to ask people for more,” he said.

Chicago Public Schools says it faces a $400 million increase in annual pension payments and is trying to avoid cuts to the classroom.

It released draft budgets to its principals Wednesday that, for the first time in Chicago, allocate money to schools based on the number of students rather than on school-specific programs and staff formulas. The district says it will likely use a one-time source of revenue from the county and state to avoid eliminating teachers and student programs.

Under what’s called “student-based budgeting” in education circles, principals can determine how to spend $4,429 for each kindergartner through 3rd grader, $4,140 for each 4th through 8th grader and $5,029 for each high school student, according to CPS. That’s in contrast to the district’s old formula of providing a classroom teacher for every 28 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and for every 31 students in 4th grade and up, and an assistant principal, art or music teacher and librarian or gym teacher for every 750 students.

The Chicago Teachers Union estimates job losses of some 150 to 350 teachers out of the nearly 2,000 teachers working in the 48 schools the district will shutter in June, according to union vice president Jesse Sharkey. That projection doesn’t account for additional job cuts that could come about from miscalculations in this new style of budgeting, he said.

CPS spokeswoman Rebecca Carroll said she didn’t yet know how many teachers could lose their jobs, pointing to the CTU contract which allows the highest rated teachers to be transferred to their students’ new schools if open positions exist.

“Therefore, per the contract agreement, there will be a number of teachers who won’t qualify to follow students,” she wrote in an email. “Until principals finalize their budgets and staffing plans sometime in July, we won’t know how many teachers will actually follow their students.”

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