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Rahm questions how Meeks’ past CPS views square with state probe

Mayor Rahm Emanuel suggested Friday that politics is behind a state investigation of the Chicago Public Schools and questioned why State Board of Education President James Meeks would be a party to it.

“One of the greatest eloquent voices in making sure there was equal funding for education because Chicago students were being held back was Senator Meeks,” Emanuel said, referring to the many demonstrations Meeks led while serving as outspoken chairman of the state Senate Education Committee.

He once even led hundreds of CPS parents and students to enroll in the mayor’s alma mater, New Trier High School, in tony north suburban Winnetka on the first day of school to highlight the state’s education’s inequities.

“Senator Meeks understands the system is rigged against poor kids, and the system is rigged against Chicago teachers and taxpayers because we are subsidizing all the other teachers and all the other school districts and all the other taxpayers who are quite well off around the rest of the state,” the mayor said. “It predates all of us. But that’s how you fix the system. Not just asking for paper.”

Rev. James meeks leads a protest march on north Michigan ave. supporting fair school funding in 2008. File Photo. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
Rev. James meeks leads a protest march on north Michigan ave. supporting fair school funding in 2008. File Photo. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

On Thursday, the Illinois State Board of Education launched a financial investigation into CPS that, Gov. Bruce Rauner apparently hopes, will lay the groundwork for the state takeover and bankruptcy declaration that he’s been seeking. CPS is facing a March 4 deadline to turn over a mountain of detailed financial information about cash flow, bonds, payroll and major contracts to the state, according to a letter signed by Meeks and State Superintendent Tony Smith, another Rauner appointee.

Meeks did not return multiple messages seeking comment.

CPS scoffed at the probe, saying Rauner had no power to impose oversight and that most of the sought-after financials were already publicly available.

But Rauner defended the state investigation to reporters Friday as he called CPS’ online financials “indecipherable.”

“You can’t make heads or tails of it,” he said. “I think that’s partly intentional. We need to go deep inside the books, study the cash flows to truly understand what’s going on inside CPS.”

He’s confident the results will make it “very likely” legislators will grant him the power he seeks over Illinois’ largest district.

“I believe if the facts are truly known and if Chicago Public Schools continues just to say, ‘Send cash, we’re out of money, we’re going to have to fire thousands of teachers,’ I think the legislature will say, ‘No that’s not a good scenario, we should have the State Board of Education take over,’” he said.

Right now, Rauner said, “when I study the math, I don’t see anything other than two options. Either massive, massive property tax hikes on the people of Chicago that would be crushing to homeowners and workin’ families, and small business owners in Chicago, or bankruptcy.”

On Friday, Emanuel said CPS will cooperate with the investigation. But the mayor said of Rauner, “You know. Everybody knows. The fact is, he doesn’t have the ability legally to do what he wants to do” by initiating a state takeover of CPS that could lead to a bankruptcy that could nullify union contracts.

He added, “You can look at the finances. You’re going to find out….Chicago teachers are actually not supported with their pensions the same way teachers in the rest of the state are. And our students also are held at a disadvantage financially. … Chicago students, 90 percent of ‘em are poor, received $45 million less in state support.”

For months, Rauner has been trying to use the CPS financial crisis as a political lever to drive a wedge between Emanuel and state House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The governor wants his old friend, the mayor, to pressure Madigan—as if that were even possible—to drop his opposition to Rauner’s pro-business, anti-union agenda. That’s what’s behind the state budget stalemate.

For the umpteenth time, Emanuel said Friday that the governor’s squeeze play is not going to work.

“We’re closing social service clinics — whether they’re rape clinics, day care or home health care — in the name of collective bargaining reform. Let us get a budget done and we can also deal with the issues. By tying them together, you’ve tied the state up and kids are losing their educational opportunity,” the mayor said.

“The kids going to Western Illinois. The kids going to Chicago State. The kids going to all the universities that receive support that are now not going back — that’s our future. Do I think worker’s comp, taking one issue, is important? Yeah. Do I think it’s more important than the kids’ education who are dropping out on their future? No. It’s the wrong value system. We can work on both of those. Just not the idea of tying up the budget. [It has] tied up the state’s future in a set of politics that I think is totally wrong.”

In 2011, Meeks flirted with running for mayor himself before endorsing former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun over Emanuel.

At the time, Meeks argued that Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff, had “never done anything” for African-Americans.

Four years later, Meeks was singing a different tune.

He supported Emanuel’s re-election bid, even as African-American voters were abandoning Emanuel in droves for closing a record 50 public schools.

“The mayor has taken a beating for closing schools. I don’t believe that the mayor intended to harm one child or one family by closing the schools. I believe that everything he did involving education he did it so that all school children in the city of Chicago would have a safe and a better school to go to,” Meeks said then.

“I know that some of you are wondering about school closings and how can we support the mayor. Because we don’t believe that the mayor had in his heart an intent to harm one child. He looks at every child as if he looks at his own child. Every time a child is hurt, shot, murdered, anything happens, the mayor is there. It’s not in his heart to want to hurt children.”