CPS sues state over funding, says it violates students’ rights

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool (right) has been feuding with Gov. Bruce Rauner over school funding. | File photos

Chicago’s Board of Education has sued the governor and the Illinois State Board of Education, alleging that the state maintains “two separate and demonstrably unequal systems” for funding public education.

Citing the landmark education civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, Chicago Public Schools officials railed against the state’s funding and pension systems, saying that “the State treats CPS’ schoolchildren, who are predominantly African American and Hispanic, as second-class children, relegated to the back of the State’s education funding school bus,” when compared to children in the rest of the predominantly white state.

That violates the civil rights of CPS minority students who have suffered drastic budget cuts to their schools, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cook County’s Chancery division on behalf of five minority CPS families.

“This really is our last stand,” chief education officer Janice

Jackson said at Lindblom Math and Science Academy High School in Englewood. “We had hoped for a legislative solution, and that has not happened. Therefore we’re left with this as an option.”

She asked the public to help “fight this unjust system that, in my opinion, continues to perpetuate the status quo that leaves black children, Latino children with a future that is opaque when when it should be bright.”

CPS’ general counsel Ronald Marmer and his deputy brought the lawsuit, along with attorneys from the law firm Jenner & Block, which used to employ CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and Marmer and still pays Marmer severance. Those ties are a focus of an ongoing investigation by the schools’ inspector general, as the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

Claypool said he wants a judge to promptly declare the state’s funding formula and teacher pension disparities unlawful and to stop state officials from doling out money in a discriminatory fashion. The suit also seeks attorneys’ fees, though Claypool said the private lawyers have agreed to work for free.

The schools chief, who has ratcheted up his rhetoric against Rauner in recent weeks, has long threatened to bring legal action against the state, hiring the firm last year to prepare a lawsuit. Claypool said he prefers a legislative solution, and one arrived in June, conditionally, with $215 million for CPS pensions: the state had to pass “pension reform.”

In December, Rauner said the conditions hadn’t been met and vetoed the bill containing the money.

Legislative leaders have been working on a “grand bargain” solution for the state’s budget, and the Senate’s plan contains $215 million for CPS pensions. Another bill to allocate new money first to impoverished districts was filed in the House, that’s the product of Rauner’s appointed bipartisan education funding commission, which recommended ways to close funding gaps between wealthy and poor districts.

Rauner is scheduled to deliver his annual state budget address on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, his education secretary Beth Purvis referred to those recommendations, saying, “the Governor remains focused on moving forward these recommendations and hopes that CPS will be a partner in that endeavor.”

Meanwhile, Chicago’s schools system has slashed about $104 million with furlough days and spending freezes, and proffered another version of its $5.4 billion operating budget that still lacks $111 million.

Lindblom students took advantage of Claypool’s appearance to protest the cuts, with dozens of them blocking a stairwell, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Claypool has got to go.”

Plaintiff Marlon Gosa, who was recruited by CPS, said, “We believed that the governor was going to work something out. So we waited, and we are back at square one.”

Gosa said he has confidence in the court.

“Something has to work. I’m here to do anything I need to do to get the funding for my children,” at Dewey and Sherman elementary schools, he said. “It’s wrong. When I talked to my principals, and they telling me they have to cut this, ‘we can’t afford this teacher, we have to cut that,’ I can’t stand around and do nothing.”

A similar lawsuit, filed by the Chicago Urban League in 2008 against ISBE, alleging civil rights violations of minority students throughout the state, still is pending in Cook County Court. It does not deal with pensions.

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis called the legal battle “a fake fight” between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Rauner, and she questioned why the union wasn’t a party to the suit that came as a surprise to them.

“Why aren’t we co-plaintiffs on this? Why didn’t they ask us or talk to us about it?” Lewis wondered at CTU headquarters, adding that she had no faith in CPS.

“They don’t hold up their end of the bargain,” she said. “I have no trust in what they’ll ask for. And I have no trust in what they’ll do when they get the money.”

Emanuel said Tuesday he decided to pull the trigger on the lawsuit now after the governor’s commission acknowledged longstanding inequity that has penalized poor Chicago schoolchildren.

“That also happens Downstate, so it’s not limited to Chicago,” he said. “The point of the lawsuit is, under the civil rights clause of the state of Illinois, the way education is funded is in violation of the civil rights of our children. And I would like you all to remember who was the first person to bring this to light? State Sen. Meeks, who’s now head of the State Board of Education appointed by the governor.”

CPS has paid Jenner & Block more than $182,000 under a deal approved by the Board of Education last summer, months after the firm began drafting the lawsuit.

Jenner & Block has been paying Marmer $200,000 a year under a $1 million severance package since he left the firm in 2014.

Prompted by Sun-Times reports on Marmer’s ties to the firm, the CPS inspector general’s office opened an investigation to determine whether he had violated the district’s ethics policy.

Under CPS’ code of ethics, no school official can have any “contract management authority” over a board deal with a contractor “with whom the employee has a business relationship” — defined as any transaction worth at least $2,500 in a calendar year to the CPS employee.

Emails obtained by the Sun-Times show Marmer oversaw Jenner & Block’s work for CPS.

Claypool has defended Marmer and said it was his decision to hire the firm, where he worked briefly in the 1980s.

“Jenner & Block is a top litigation firm. We wanted to make sure we had the strongest legal firepower given the existence of the school system was at stake,” Claypool said in July when the Board approved paying the firm for work on the suit against the state.

Claypool has released a legal opinion from another outside law firm, which concluded that Marmer did nothing wrong. That opinion was written for CPS by J. Timothy Eaton of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. Like Marmer, Eaton has contributed to Claypool’s political campaigns. The district has declined to release communications between Marmer and its in-house ethics adviser, Andra Gomberg.

In December, inspector general Nicholas Schuler accused Claypool of stonewalling his investigation, making an unusually public complaint during the public participation segment of a school board meeting.

The firm has billed the district at $295-an-hour rate, CPS’ standard for outside counsel. But the Sun-Times has reported that an earlier, original version of the deal would have paid Jenner & Block its normal much higher rates if the lawsuit won increased funding from the state.

The Jenner & Block lawyer who is lead counsel for CPS in the case is Randall Mehrberg. State records show Mehrberg contributed a total of $30,500 to Claypool’s election campaigns and $5,000 toward each Emanuel bid for mayor, in 2011 and 2015.

Mehrberg has spent most of his career at Jenner & Block but he worked for the Chicago Park District for several years in the 1990s, including a period when Claypool was parks chief under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. Right before rejoining Jenner & Block, he served a stint with Claypool at City Hall while Claypool was Emanuel’s chief of staff.

Another Jenner & Block lawyer working on the case is Blake Sercye, political director for Emanuel’s 2011 mayoral campaign.

According to a Jan. 30 letter, Jenner & Block now agrees to continue their work on CPS’ lawsuit on a pro-bono basis.

“You will not be charged for time spent by attorneys or paralegals on this matter,” Mehrberg wrote to Marmer’s deputy.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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