ISBE on failure to take over CPS: Our hands were tied

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James Meeks, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. | Sun-Times file photo

The Illinois State Board of Education, which recently determined it couldn’t take over a fiscally beleaguered Chicago Public Schools, bent over backwards Wednesday to spell out that its decision in no way absolved the district of financial problems.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner had championed the state board’s proposed financial investigation of CPS, the state’s largest school district that has borrowed heavily at higher interest rates to keep school doors open this spring. He also has suggested that bankruptcy could be a solution for CPS as it soon faces a $1 billion budget gap.

Late last week, the state board headed and governed by Rauner appointees published documents saying CPS’ financial situation didn’t fit any of five determined criteria for the state to take it over.

At ISBE’s monthly board meeting Wednesday, chairman James Meeks said news reports greatly exaggerated CPS’ financial health.

“Was there at any time any memos to your knowledge sent out from the Illinois State Board of Education stating that Chicago Public Schools had a clean bill of health as to how its finances are operated?” Meeks asked.

Robert Wolfe, ISBE’s chief financial officer, said there were not, emphasizing that the criteria used weren’t ISBE’s but were guided by state law.

“It is not our discretion. Using the statute that exists and the data we have, they did not qualify for the next step,” Wolfe said. “We didn’t make any decisions about it. We ran the process.”

CPS had accused Rauner of playing politics by investigating CPS in the first place, as he and the district fight over how best to fund schools. Five other troubled districts also had to turn over financial documents for state examination. Only one potentially faces any danger of a takeover, according to Wolfe.

A district spokeswoman has said that “this decision demonstrates that Gov. Rauner’s attempts to drive CPS into bankruptcy are misguided and wrong.”

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