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Mayor won’t consider CTU’s ideas to raise school money locally

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Forest Claypool discuss school funding after an awards ceremony Thursday. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Unwilling to let the General Assembly “off the hook” for school funding, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday refused to entertain any of the $500 million in revenue ideas served up by the Chicago Teachers Union.

“The solution is not about more taxes. It’s about more fairness. . . . If you look at the taxpayers of Chicago — they pay twice already for teacher pensions. And I’m not gonna let the state of Illinois get off the hook,” the mayor said.

“I understand they say, ‘Raise more taxes.’ A big part of the answer here is getting the state to live up to its obligation to poor kids,” he said. “I would say to the teachers union’s leadership, ‘Get off the sidelines with three weeks left. Join us in changing the policies and priorities of Springfield.’ There will be a piece of legislation on education funding. It will be in the billions. The question is, will it continue to penalize poor kids or will it actually try to achieve a level playing field? Will it continue to rank Illinois 48th out of 50 states or not? That’s where the major resources are.”

Emanuel said the school funding bill limping through the Illinois Senate is not a Chicago bailout. It’s a “clear clarion call to everybody” about fairness in the system of funding public schools throughout the state.

“There are over 200 districts throughout the state that have a preponderance of poor kids that are losing money by the way the state of Illinois funds education. The people of Illinois do not believe poor kids should be penalized because they’re poor. That has to end,” the mayor said.

That funding reform bill, sponsored by downstate Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), and supported by both the school district and teachers union, was not called for a vote Thursday as expected. Senators apparently wanted more time to consider numbers for their local districts, according to the office of the Senate president.

Earlier this week, the CTU served up a smorgasbord of local revenue ideas for the mayor and aldermen to consider, saying that even if every measure in Springfield went through, the money raised would not close a $1.1 billion budget shortfall projected for the fiscal year starting in July.

The union’s legislative director, Stacy Davis Gates, accused Emanuel, as the head of the schools system, of a “lack of leadership that’s coming from the 5th floor when Chicago needs it the most.”

“He has offered absolutely no specifics, he’s offered no leadership, he’s put no bill together.

“He’s just pointed to Springfield, and Springfield is as dysfunctional as they come,” she said.

Revenue ideas range from tripling the city’s nickel-a-gallon tax on gasoline to reinstating at quadruple the old rate the employee head tax that Emanuel proudly eliminated.

The union’s wish list also includes a $15 million-a-year tax on ride-hailing services like Uber, whose investors include the mayor’s brother, and yet another increase — from 4.5 percent to 6 percent — in the city tax on hotel rooms. Emanuel has already raised the hotel tax, and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s new 1 percent county hotel tax raised the overall tax rate to 17.4 percent.

Gates acknowledged that all the ideas won’t succeed, but she said that someone needed to suggest more solutions.

“We would like for them to join us in offering some leadership other than saying what they cannot do. If Springfield is the answer, what is your proposal?” she added.

After appearing with Emanuel at a South Side field house, schools CEO Forrest Claypool said Emanuel has already put local revenue on the table.

The mayor has offered to raise property taxes by $170 million for teacher pensions — on top of the record $588 million increase approved last fall for police and fire pensions and school construction — whether or not Springfield does its part.

“He’s also transferred tens and tens of millions of dollars of TIF surplus. He froze downtown TIFs. Hundreds of millions of dollars in capital for the schools come from Mayor Emanuel. So the city is doing its part. We need Springfield to do their part,” Claypool said.

Although the immediate threat of Chicago’s second teachers strike in four years has been lifted, the CTU has reserved the right to strike at any time if the nearly bankrupt school district ends a 7 percent pension payment given to teachers years ago in lieu of a pay raise.

But Claypool said Thursday he has no intention of provoking the union by unilaterally enacting the board’s final contract offer to teachers.

“Our preference is to negotiate those things at the bargaining table. . . . We’ve already done it once. We reached an agreement . . . that phased out the pension pickup over two years in exchange for a 13.5 percent pay raise and other things that teachers have asked for. The arbitrator agreed that was a fair contract. We believe if we stay at the table, we can come to a negotiated settlement,” he said.

Emanuel signed off on a school budget that assumed $480 million in pension help from Springfield. CPS has managed to make it through the school year, only after borrowing $775 million at sky-high interest rates and making several rounds of budget cuts.

On Thursday, Claypool acknowledged that CPS will have to renew an existing line of credit with banks in August to “manage cash flow.” But he denied that more borrowing would be necessary to make a $676 million teacher pension payment due June 30.

“What we’ve done this year — the $170 million in school cuts, the $50 million cut to administrative positions, the three furlough days — all of those things were to gather the cash necessary to make this massive payment. . . . When we make that payment, we’ll have very little resources left. But we did all of those things to make the pension payment,” Claypool said.

The news conference ended on an angry note when Emanuel and his hand-picked schools CEO were asked whether their argument for school funding parity was somehow undermined by the fact that their children attend exclusive private schools.

Claypool’s daughter goes to pricey Francis Parker. Emanuel’s two daughters attend the tony University of Chicago Lab Schools.

“My kids go to the same school that President Obama sent his kids to. And nobody said anything when President Obama was leading the fight for Race to the Top. I don’t live in public housing, but I do fight for fairness in housing. I’m not homeless, but I do fight for resources for homelessness. . . . It’s not about my kids. It’s about the kids of Chicago,” the mayor said.

Claypool said his children have gone to “three different public schools” at different times.

“The fact that they’re in a private school now versus when they were in public school — that’s a parental choice that’s appropriate,” he said.

“It’s not about anybody’s credibility. It’s about doing the right thing and educating the public and the legislators about what’s really going on,” he said. “People don’t understand . . . that we have two education funding systems separate but unequal. Brown vs. the Board of Education 60 years ago ruled that illegal but we have it today in Illinois. It is minority children, poor children of Chicago and in many low-income districts throughout the state that are on the losing end of that inequality.”