Gov. Bruce Rauner said on Tuesday that he fears Chicago Public Schools, with a $1.1 billion projected budget deficit as of July, could be headed toward bankruptcy.
But the governor said that step would at least let the country’s third-largest district “restructure its debts and contracts” — including its teachers union contract.
Rauner also said that Chicago and Illinois’ other municipalities should get to decide what to collectively bargain with teachers — or even whether to have unions in their school systems.
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“It shouldn’t be dictated by Springfield, shouldn’t be dictated by the teachers union,” he said. “The schools belong to taxpayers and the parents. They should decide what gets collectively bargained. They should decide, do teachers have to join a union to teach their children? If they want that, terrific. . . . I’m not saying it has to change. But I want local control of that. Springfield shouldn’t dictate those terms.”
The trouble is that the ideas he shared at a luncheon would require Springfield to change state law. The governor’s remarks came in a conversation with Chicago Public Education Fund board member Mellody Hobson at a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the fund, a prominent education non-profit.
Rauner has already suggested giving municipalities the power to declare bankruptcy, with a bill pending in the capital, and has waged wars against public-sector unions.
After the 30-minute interview in which the governor stressed the need to hold teachers accountable, he refused to take reporter questions, saying, “Come on back to Springfield with me . . . we’ll talk in Springfield,” as he left the swank W Hotel.
Mayoral spokeswoman Libby Langsdorf said the city wants to first discuss Illinois’ state education funding, which is next to last in the nation, as well as Chicago’s contributions to suburban teacher pensions as well as its own.
“The municipal bankruptcy bill is not currently moving in Springfield,” she said. “The governor’s suggestion is not part of our plan. Instead of proposing to solve the state’s fiscal crisis on the back of local governments, he should be working to ensure that Chicago, the biggest economic driver in the state, gets back on sound footing.”
Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett ignored reporters who followed her to an elevator seeking comment.
Chicago Board of Education member Carlos Azcoitia said the district meanwhile is “taking measures to be able to prevent [bankruptcy] and be able to get our house in order,” adding that the district and Rauner agree that pensions should be reformed.
“But I don’t see bankruptcy as any solution, and it’s not going to happen,” Azcoitia said.
Afterward by telephone, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis denounced Rauner’s bankruptcy suggestion, saying “to throw the entire system into chaos, financial chaos is irresponsible.”
Calling the governor “basically a robber baron,” engaged in “union busting,” Lewis wondered “how much respect does Bruce Rauner have for people who walk away from their debts, for regular, ordinary people who walk away from their debts?”
“I’m sure he has special names for them: deadbeats.”