Blame pension mess for school cuts
Editorials July 7, 2013 4:52PM
Updated: August 9, 2013 6:21AM
Principals and local school councils across Chicago have every right to be outraged. The Chicago Public Schools leadership has been slow to admit it, but many schools are facing significant budget cuts.
Take Lake View High School, an up-and-coming neighborhood high school.
The North Side school is spending $2 million in tax increment financing dollars this summer to build and update 14 labs to accommodate a new science, technology, engineering and math program.
At the same time, the school is facing $1 million to $1.5 million in budget cuts this fall — money it won’t have to staff and equip those labs. The cuts will likely force the loss of 15 teaching positions, putting the program’s success and the school’s future at risk, Ald. Ameya Pawar tells us.
Lake View is one of at least 140 schools facing budget cuts that total nearly $92 million — we say at least because that’s all we know about, thanks to the parent group Raise Your Hand. Many public charter schools also are getting whacked.
CPS refuses to release school-by-school budgets because it says they aren’t final, a practice CPS says it has followed for years. Final budgets are due the end of July. Given all the noise around budgets this year, the distrust the lack of transparency is breeding and the fact that budgets don’t usually change much after being released, this seems an excellent year to change that practice.
For schools already stretched thin, nearly every budget cut hits bone. Whitney Young High School is considering charging students to take a seventh class. Edgebrook Elementary stands to lose a teacher, two special education aides and has no cash for textbooks or toilet paper. Mitchell Elementary is losing three teachers and isn’t buying any new computers, furniture or books for next year.
About 30 local school councils have banded together to fight these cuts, with several voting to reject the meager budgets sent by CPS’ central office.
We cheer them on — but urge them and others to aim their fire not just at CPS and the mayor. CPS is looking at a $1 billion deficit and has few places to turn.
There is but one realistic way to generate meaningful cash right now: Pension reform. CPS’ budget woes this year are driven by a $400 million increase in pension costs.
This adds yet another layer of urgency to the call to action for state lawmakers. For the sake of the state and CPS, they need to pass a comprehensive pension cost-cutting bill that covers the state retirement systems as well as the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund. And they need to do it this summer.
We aren’t holding our breath on Tuesday’s special session in Springfield, but there is no good reason a legislative committee on pensions can’t produce a workable plan by month’s end.
Chicago isn’t on the committee’s radar, but it should be. For more than a year, the teachers union and CPS have been negotiating, searching for common ground on pension reform. Those talks have produced little and, absent any change, it’s time for state legislators to take over.
Pension reform, mind you, is only a start toward long-term fiscal stability for CPS. We support CTU’s call for a separate tax levy for teacher pensions and for a more fair tax structure. We’ve long advocated a progressive tax system for Illinois and think Mayor Rahm Emanuel was right last month when he refused to rule out temporarily lifting Chicago’s property tax cap. We also support the call by the CTU and Raise Your Hand for the city to declare a TIF surplus this summer, rather than considering it in the fall, as is the normal course.
But we’re not talking big money. The city estimates a potential TIF surplus of only $10 million.
Every dollar counts when you’re talking about a child’s reading specialist, seventh-period class or special-education aide.
But realistically, TIF surpluses are a mere finger in the dike. The real work of fortifying CPS begins with pension reform.