Editorial: CPS budget has some big ifs

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CPS CEO Forrest Claypool at a press conference addressing the CPS budget, Chicago, Monday. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

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The Chicago Public Schools’ $5.4 billion budget unveiled Monday has, as teachers say in algebra class, a couple of variables. Big variables.

It relies on the phasing out the 7 percent pension pickup, a concept the Chicago Teachers Union has rejected, or finding similar savings elsewhere. That’s one variable.

It also relies on Springfield — which can’t even pass its own budget — coming through with more than $200 million for the “normal costs” of Chicago teacher pensions. That’s another.


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CPS, which cut its proposed budget by $232 million from last year, calls the budget balanced. But it would be fairer to categorize its equation as open-ended.

That’s especially in light of CTU President Karen Lewis saying, “We do not know if Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel can stand another teachers strike, especially at a time when confidence in his leadership is at an all-time low and the city is in an uproar over another police shooting of an unarmed African-American youth. Do not force our hand.”

We understand that the time for publicly agreeing on a contract is at the end of the process, not amid the negotiations. But that quote doesn’t sound like someone who is ready to come to the table and sign off on the contract CPS is expecting.

Ruling out the foolish notion that CPS can somehow be saved financially by declaring bankruptcy, the only realistic alternative to a CPS budget that looks much like the one unveiled Monday is to go back to the Legislature to seek permission to raise taxes even higher. The district is taxing at its legal maximum.

The Legislature already has given CPS the green light to raise another $250 million from property taxes for teacher pensions. Are Chicago property owners — already swamped with big increases in property taxes, cell phone taxes, a proposed hefty boost in water and sewer taxes, and a sales taxes increase levied by Cook County — ready to rally around yet another big tax increase? Or would they prefer the teachers union accept a contract along the lines of the one that apparently passed muster with top CTU leadership in January before the union’s Big Bargaining Team nixed it?

The teachers can’t do anything about the turmoil in Springfield. But they are in their second year of negotiating over a new contract. They should see the CPS budget as what it is, an attempt to get the schools on sound footing, and recognize there’s a point when letting negotiations fail in a quest for money that isn’t there will hurt only the district’s nearly 400,000 students.

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