Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Sun-Times file photo

Emanuel says shortening school year ‘not the right choice’

SHARE Emanuel says shortening school year ‘not the right choice’
SHARE Emanuel says shortening school year ‘not the right choice’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday it’s not “the first choice” or the “right choice” to end the school year three weeks early, but “there are consequences” to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a bill providing $215 million in pension help to the Chicago Public Schools.

Chicago Public Schools asked a Cook County judge on Monday to fast-track the district’s civil rights lawsuit against the state of Illinois, warning of “devastating, immediate and irreparable harm” to students if a funding issue isn’t resolved quickly. At worst, CPS said it may have to end the school year three weeks early, chopping off 13 school days in June, to save, according to the district’s “conservative” estimates, $91 million.

“I don’t take that decision lightly. It’s not the first choice, and it’s not the right choice. . . . [But] there is a reality. The governor vetoed a bill that would have provided pension equity and fairness across the system making Forrest [Claypool] and the CPS system try to make some very difficult choices keeping those cuts away from the classroom,” Emanuel said at an unrelated news conference.

“There are real consequences to what the state and the governor have done. The governor vetoed a bill because he was angry that Senate President [John] Cullerton said something. That’s not how you make decisions. . . . There’s a consequence to the failure of Springfield to fix what, for 20 years, everybody has said was broken. It is broken. And it continues to hurt and penalize.”

More than $100 million in the red and on the hook for a $721 million teacher pension payment in June, CPS said it could cut the school year as short as June 1 and shrink summer school if money doesn’t come through soon from the state. That’s 13 class days knocked off of Emanuel’s signature longer school year, which was scheduled to end June 20.

Rauner’s office warned that shortening the school year would cost the district dearly in state money. CPS stands to lose about $6 million in general state aid for each day it falls short of the number of class days required by the state.

By state estimates, CPS could be docked as much as $45 million, according to Illinois Education Secretary Beth Purvis.

“It seems that the history of mismanagement at CPS continues, because this proposed ‘solution’ hurts students, teachers, and reduces state funding to CPS by $45 million,” Purvis said in an email. “Instead of blaming someone who’s been in office for two years, it would be helpful if the Mayor was asking why his district’s chief created a budget that depended on revenue that hadn’t been appropriated by the General Assembly.”

Rauner’s office did not answer questions about the civil rights lawsuit or CPS’ request for ruling by the end of April.

CPS has estimated in court documents that it could save $91 million from the shortened school year and acknowledged it will push CPS’ school year below the number of class days required for full funding.

ISBE requires 180 class days but also counts additional parent conferences, teacher institute and school improvement days toward that number, and has said that CPS’ original calendar had four extra student days on it.

CPS’ “conservative” estimates puts the district at 171 student attendance days if school ends on June 1, according to spokeswoman Emily Bittner.

And since it costs more to keep a school open than CPS receives from the state, the district wouldn’t feel the loss, she said. Each school day costs about $11.5 million in salary and expenses, and CPS gets more than $6 million in general state aid daily for up to 176 days of student attendance.

“The goal is not to figure out how to shorten the school year,” she said. “The goal is to figure out how to get the funding our children deserve from Springfield and avoid having to consider ugly options to begin with.”

On Wednesday, Emanuel was asked how he could support lopping three weeks off the school year when he fought so hard — and took a 2012 teachers strike that was Chicago’s first in 25 years — to make it happen.

“I fought for it very hard. . . . You were all out in front of my house for about seven days [during the strike]. We fixed something. We gave our kids the equivalent of . . . 21/2more years in the classroom. . . . It’s the largest increase of any school district in the United States — ever. And our kids proved academically in the last four years what they were always fully capable of,” the mayor said.

“We fixed something. We did it on our own. . . . What Springfield needs to do is muscle up the political courage to fix what is broken. They know it’s broken. . . . Is there a piece of legislation? No. Is there action? No. Have they decided to muster up the political will? Jury’s out.”

The mayor stressed that ending the school year on June 1 is just “one of many things they’re gonna look at.” He’s clearly hoping the mere threat of such an inconvenience to Chicago parents will spur the Illinois General Assembly into action on the senate’s “grand bargain” plan, which includes pension equity for CPS.

“Everybody knows that we have a broken school formula that penalizes poor kids of color vs. rewarding wealthy districts of kids like in Winnetka, Naperville and across the suburbs. It is broken. Everybody recognizes it. Rather than do a study, let’s fix the system,” Emanuel said, in an apparent jab at the commission created by his fellow Democrat, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

Pounding the podium for emphasis, the mayor said, “We fixed the longer day. It’s time for the state to fix the funding formula so you don’t have to cut back on kids time in class.”

CPS is trying to plug a $129 million hole. School officials have cut $88 million in centrally provided training and school-based “freezes” CPS opted for instead of layoffs. So far, they have not generated any new revenue.

They had “frozen” $46 million by taking half of what schools had left in discretionary spending accounts for recess monitors and after-school programs and classroom supplies but were pressured into giving $15 million back to low-income schools after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that they lost twice as much money as wealthier schools.

District staff already face four unpaid furlough days aimed at saving $35 million.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey has called the potential loss of three weeks of school “pretty devastating” for students and for his members, who now face a pay cut of between 9 percent and 10 percent, and has asked the city to seek new revenue.

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