A Cook County judge will rule April 28 on whether the broke Chicago Public Schools deserves immediate financial action from the state. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel left little doubt after Wednesday’s hearing that he was prepared to do whatever it takes — be it borrowing, another raid on tax-increment financing funds or yet another tax increase — to stave off an early closing of Chicago Public Schools.
After Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a bill that would have given CPS $215 million it was counting on for teacher pensions, CPS filed a civil rights lawsuit against the governor and Illinois State Board of Education, alleging the way that schools and pensions are funded is discriminatory.
They’re seeking a preliminary injunction against the state, asking that all state funding be stopped until the state finds a way to distribute its money in a way that doesn’t discriminate, though it’s not clear how that would alleviate the district’s current money woes.
And the district asked Cook County Judge Franklin U. Valderrama for a prompt ruling, saying that the longer Chicago’s schoolchildren, who are mostly African-American and Latino, go without funding equal to their downstate peers, who are mostly white, the greater the harm to their education. CPS has threatened that school might end as much as three weeks early this spring, on June 1, and said it hoped to inform parents of a decision by May 1.
Illinois State Board of Education attorneys are seeking to have the entire lawsuit thrown out, saying CPS has no legal standing under the Illinois Civil Rights Act.
Valderrama held an hourlong hearing on Wednesday. CPS had requested three days to put on its case. The courtroom was packed with the plaintiff’s families solicited by CPS; ministers from African-American churches who filed an amicius brief in support of the district; and CPS’ top leadership: CEO Forrest Claypool, Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson and school board President Frank Clark.
At issue is whether pensions should be counted as part of the funding the state doles out for education. If they are, CPS gets less money from the state per student. If not, CPS gets more.
Chicago has the only school district in the state that pays the bulk of its teacher pensions into the Chicago Teacher Pension Fund. Teachers elsewhere collect from the state-funded Teacher Retirement System.
“Pension funding is clearly part of education funding, pensions are part of teacher compensation,” said David DeBruin, one of the attorneys CPS engaged from the Jenner and Block law firm. After CPS makes its pension contributions, it’s left with about $9,000 per student compared with about $12,000 in other districts, he said.
Arguing for the state, Assistant Attorney General Gary Caplan told the judge that the separate pension systems have been in place for decades. “That crystallizes that we’re here today to deal with their disappointment with Gov. Rauner’s veto of $215 million.”
But another argument in court centered around whether the situation merits the immediacy of the preliminary injunction sought by CPS. And among Valderrama’s many questions Wednesday was one to DeBruin clarifying whether CPS is seeking “to stop state funding to every other school district, including CPS, until when the state Legislature does something to alleviate harm across the rest of the state?”
“Not necessarily,” DeBruin answered, laying out other options the state has, such as redistributing money from existing funds.
Caplan wondered how shutting down funding to all school districts is any solution, especially when they haven’t been consulted.
“How is that helping them?” he asked. “That makes no sense.”
CEO Forrest Claypool couldn’t say exactly how any ruling, even one in CPS’ favor, would solve this year’s problem of filling an existing $129 million budget gap, to keep school doors open through June 20.
“The judge has broad powers under the Illinois Civil Rights Act to fashion a remedy for our children from the irreparable harm of a shortened school year and other harms and cuts in the classroom without harming anyone else in the state,” he said after court. “The pension funds, for example, are part of the problem. The way pensions are funded could be addressed as part of any remedy the court fashions.”
CPS’ $721 million pension payment is due June 30.
The mayor, who took a teachers strike to achieve his signature longer school day and school year, insisted that “I have been very clear about what I fought for and what I believe is right. Kids belong in school.”
With parents across the city growing increasingly anxious and demanding answers from their aldermen, the mayor refused to say what exactly he was prepared to do to prevent schools from closing three weeks early, even after repeated questioning.
“If a judge is about to rule on your decision — while you have a very well thought out question — I’m not gonna speak about that before a judge makes a decision. That would be undermining or . . . could adversely affect” the ruling,” Emanuel said.
Asked a third time, he said, “I’m not doing hypotheticals. A judge is gonna make a big decision on a big case CPS has brought. That’s first. They’re legitimate questions. But they’re not legitimate questions now.”
“The legitimate question now is, is the state of Illinois, which has the primary responsibility for funding education, gonna fund them equitably?”