Itching for an answer, Chicago aldermen will have to wait a bit longer to find out how Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to prevent the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public Schools from closing their doors three weeks early.
A series of closed-door aldermanic briefings scheduled to be held on Thursday to outline the financial rescue that could jeopardize Chicago’s own shaky finances have been put off until Tuesday.
That will give top mayoral aides and Emanuel’s handpicked school team five more days to figure out how much more can be cut from the CPS budget and how large a gap the city needs to fill.
“We know students will be in school through the end of the school year and Forrest [Claypool’s] team continues to work diligently to find solutions to CPS financial challenges,” Emanuel’s communications director Adam Collins wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.
“We are looking forward to briefing aldermen about CPS finances next week when there is more information available.”
Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, said he is “encouraged” by the delay.
“Sometimes we rush to…make sure people know we’ve got an answer. And oftentimes, that answer has to be changed because we missed something. Taking additional time to make sure we get it as right as we can [is] smart. It’s mature,” O’Connor said.
“It’s analogous to Trump saying, ‘Geez. I didn’t know this was so hard.’ Fortunately, we know it’s hard and we’re trying to put in the time and analysis before we make an announcement we’re gonna do it.”
O’Connor acknowledged that a bridge loan from the city’s tax-increment-financing (TIF) districts is the most likely source for the financial rescue.
The mayor has already used an $87.5 million TIF surplus to stave off another teachers strike. He could ask the City Council to declare another temporary surplus and hope the money would be paid back when a long-term solution is reached in Springfield.
O’Connor also acknowledged that Emanuel is far more likely to borrow from TIF than he is to siphon from $620 million in “asset reserves” that remain from the sale of the Chicago Skyway. That’s because Emanuel has taken great pains to replenish that “rainy day fund” drained by former Mayor Richard M. Daley to avoid raising property taxes.
Whatever the source of the financial life raft, O’Connor said he expects the rescue plan to include another painful round of school budget cuts.
“I don’t think they’ve been approaching this as just, ‘We’re looking to see how much of a bill we have to pay.’ They will whittle it down as much as they can from an expense standpoint, then figure out how to pay the remaining cost,” he said.
O’Connor was asked whether he anticipates City Council resistance to more budget cuts.
“The Council’s first concern will be keeping the schools open. How they’re doing it will be a big part of that. I don’t know that a month of cuts is going to create a huge furor if the cost associated with keeping the schools open for a month is daunting,” he said.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said it’s a “positive development” that the school year will remain intact.
But he warned that “any additional funding” the city and CPS can “cobble together in the short-term” will be unsustainable.
“It was imprudent for the District to approve a budget that relied upon the State of Illinois to provide $215 million in additional pension funding without also developing an alternative plan to balance the budget if the state funding failed to materialize,” Msall wrote in an email.
“Any feasible, sustainable plan…will require action from Springfield, presenting further evidence that the Illinois General Assembly cannot and should not adjourn without passing a comprehensive budget that addresses the ongoing challenges of the local governments to which is has a responsibility.”
Last week, a judge dismissed a CPS lawsuit that accused the state of distributing school aid in a way that discriminates against districts like Chicago that serve poor and minority students.
Emanuel responded by taking the threat to shorten the school year by three weeks off the table. He said he would not tolerate a premature end to the vaunted longer school year that he endured a 2012 teachers strike to achieve.
Earlier this week, Emanuel said he allowed the threat of an early closing to linger when he knew all along that he would not allow the school year to be shortened to call attention to the “irreparable damage being done by the lack of funding” from the state.