The Chicago Public Schools will make a $676 million payment to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund due Thursday even though that massive payment will leave the nearly bankrupt school system with just $24 million in the bank.
“Chicago Public Schools will make that pension payment. . . . In the last two years, the city of Chicago has made more pension payments to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund than the preceding 15 years. Payments weren’t made by Springfield or anybody else, and that was wrong,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday.
Emanuel said CPS would “not have a financial challenge” if Chicago taxpayers were not paying twice — through property taxes for the pensions of their own teachers and through income taxes for the pensions of teachers outside the city.
“So, we’re gonna do what’s right. But it’s time for the state to do what’s right. Fix a broken educational formula that makes Illinois 48th out of 50th in state funding of education. And when you come to say that the formula is broken, but I want to double down on it, that’s not the right choice. You’re penalizing poor kids, kids of color across the state of Illinois,” the mayor said.
CPS has no choice but to make that payment in full, whether or not Springfield rides to the rescue with a standalone education budget.
To do otherwise would probably mean losing future access to the credit markets and slipping dangerously further into junk bond status and possibly dragging the city’s bond rating down with it.
But after making that payment in full, CPS will have nearly depleted its cash reserves. Although $24 million is only enough to cover less than two days of CPS year-round payroll, that doesn’t mean the school system will shut down a few days into July.
That’s because the summer payroll is smaller and bills are staggered and due at different times of the month.
Still, Emanuel refused Monday to say how the school system will manage with nearly no money in the bank.
Top mayoral aides would say only what the city would not do: The city will not take advantage of a change in investment policy quietly proposed by City Treasurer Kurt Summers that would allow the city to lend money to CPS and other agencies of local government.
“We’re not contemplating bailing CPS out or borrowing on their behalf or loaning them money — even temporarily,” said Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management.
“Our focus with investment strategy has always been ensuring that we get the best possible return for our taxpayers while still preserving our prinicipal. Remember, this is our operating dollars. This is how we fund the city of Chicago.”
Summers, a mayoral appointee who is maneuvering to run for mayor in 2019 if Emanuel doesn’t, said he,too, has “no intention of providing any bailout for CPS.”
The treasurer said he proposed, what he called “clean-up language” consistent with the investment policy in place in other major cities, to make certain that the city’s “sister agencies would no longer be treated any differently than the city from an investment perspective.”
“I have no intention of providing a bailout to CPS. The last thing we need is to take the heat off Gov. Rauner,” Summers said.
“The reality is, it doesn’t solve the problem. We have a structural need that no amount of financial engineering could possibly get us around.”
The proposal would add “tax anticipation warrants, municipal bonds, notes, commercial paper and other instruments representing a debt obligation issued by CPS, the Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Park District, CTA and City Colleges” to the “classes of securities” eligible for city investment.
At first blush, it appeared to be a way to tide CPS over until Springfield agrees on a funding plan and until the City Council approves Emanuel’s plan to raise property taxes by $175 million for teacher pensions. But the risk to a city trying desperately to shed its own junk bond rating would be way too high. Lending money to CPS could quite literally drag the city under.
That’s why Emanuel and Summers were so quick to shoot it down.
That didn’t stop Gov. Bruce Rauner from using the proposed investment policy change to his own political advantage.
“The mayor is finally acknowledging that it is the city’s responsibility to fix the mismanagement of their own schools. The city’s responsibility. This is not a state responsibility,” Rauner told reporters in Springfield.
“This is not the state’s, voters’, taxpayers’ fault that CPS is in such big trouble. It’s the failure of the city itself, the failure of their elected officials, the failure of their school board, which is appointed by the mayor. That’s where the responsibility lies.”
For months, the governor has pitted Chicago against the rest of the state and railed against a “Chicago bailout.” He even went so far as to label some of the city’s schools “crumbling prisons.”
Two days before lawmakers return to Springfield, Rauner continued to accuse Democratic legislative leaders of withholding their support from a school funding bill until Chicago gets more money.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said it’s a good thing Emanuel and Summers have no intention of pursuing a “financially risky” policy that would allow the city to “invest in some very speculative debt instruments.”
“The purpose of the treasurer’s office is to protect the city’s cash reserves, not to speculate or seek significant returns. For the city to pursue weakening its investment restrictions, it needs a compelling argument as to why it wants to take this step, what the advantages are and how it would handle any losses if investments fail,” Msall wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“There is some speculation that the Chicago Public Schools may no longer have access to the traditional credit markets. If that is true, taxpayers would be better served by the State of Illinois, City of Chicago and CPS working together to address CPS’ financial crisis. This includes the state passing a comprehensive, balanced budget and addressing the inequitable funding of CPS’ pensions.”
Contributing: Tina Sfondeles