Aldermen vent at CPS as June 1 closing date draws closer

SHARE Aldermen vent at CPS as June 1 closing date draws closer

Ald. George Cardenas at a Chicago City Council meeting in a 2015 file photo. | Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen on Tuesday unleashed their anger at being left in the dark as time grows short to solve a financial crisis at the Chicago Public Schools that threatens to cut the school year three weeks short.

The City Council’s Finance Committee took no action on a long-stalled ordinance that would automatically forward to the schools surplus tax increment financing funds in any year when CPS is in financial distress.

Finance Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) said the ordinance championed by Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, needs work before a final vote is taken.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who used $87.5 million in surplus TIF funds to stave off another teachers strike, is determined to stall a vote to avoid letting the Illinois General Assembly off the hook.

But sensing the mounting frustration with the financial secrecy of Schools CEO Forrest Claypool, Burke allowed a hearing on the issue to give aldermen someplace to go with their anger before they explode.

“People in this city need an answer. This is getting ridiculous. … Where’s Mr. Claypool? Where is the board? And when are we gonna get an answer about the future of our children?” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), one of the Chicago Teachers Union’s staunchest City Council allies.

Waguespack said he is “sick and tired of taking all the calls without being able to give an answer” to parents who want to know whether the school year will be cut short.

“It’s just getting to the point of insanity where there is zero leadership from the people who are supposed to exhibit that leadership. What are we supposed to tell our kids and our parents? Wait another day? Wait another week? Wait until June 1, and let’s see if you’re lucky enough to have a parent who stays at home?” Waguespack said.

“If somebody from CPS, namely Mr. Claypool, would step up here once in a while — at least once a year — and tell us what’s going on, that might be a little more helpful. But we’ve gotten zippo from those guys.”

Ald. John Arena (45th) noted that Claypool’s threat to end the school year on June 1 has dramatic consequences in a city struggling with unrelenting gang violence and the bloodshed that it triggers.

“When CPS says the date that school will end is going to be three weeks earlier, that’s not just about our kids not getting the full year of education. That’s about public safety. That’s about … where these kids are going to be during the day. And not just during the school day. Our schools are sanctuaries and refuges after school, before school for many children in this city,” Arena said.

“We have to do this now. There is not time to wait because the date is coming. And our kids need this refuge or this summer will be a harder summer for families in this city than we all want to accept. That is the reality that we’re looking at here.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a bill that would have provided $215 million in pension help, already built into the CPS budget, has prompted several rounds of budget cuts and furlough days.

CPS also has threatened to end the school year three weeks early and dramatically reduce summer school if the pension help is not forthcoming in time for the broke school system to make a state-mandated $730 million payment to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund due on June 30.

“As a result of Gov. Rauner’s racially discriminatory funding system, our students have been shortchanged by $500 million this year,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement ahead of a Wednesday court hearing on a lawsuit brought against the state by CPS. “The court set an expedited schedule, and we will provide families with clarity on the length of the school year after the court rules. CPS would not be facing these horrible choices if Gov. Rauner took action to ensure our students received the same state funding that predominately white school districts in the rest of Illinois receive.”

Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis responded with a statement, saying Rauner created a bipartisan school funding commission to improve the state’s school funding formula. 

“Instead of pointing fingers and blaming decades of fiscal mismanagement on a governor who has been in office for two years, CPS should be urging legislators to pass a balanced budget that includes changes to our education system in Illinois that will better meet the needs of every student,” Purvis said.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said Chicago Public Schools are “well past the tipping point” and unable to “sustain themselves” financially.

But he warned that a solution in Springfield is unlikely so long as the marathon state budget stalemate drags on. That puts the City Council on the hot seat.

“CPS and this council have to be on the same page. … If Springfield isn’t gonna solve this, we have to work together. But that requires a dialogue,” he said.

“There are real downsides long-term to our city if we don’t get this right and soon. And that is, people are leaving. CPS has lost 30,000 students in the last few years. And there’s more this year and more to come. We have to get this right. If we don’t, it’s gonna undercut the future of our city.”

Cardenas acknowledged that the TIF surplus ordinance was debated last year. The difference now is the sense of urgency.

“Some of you call it a song and dance. But we’re dancing again,” Cardenas said. “People want to be heard.

“Constituents want to let us know how they feel. For us to understand their circumstances and how they can’t plan in their own lives when it comes to their jobs, when it comes to child care. They can’t plan something as simple as just taking the day off because they don’t know if they’re gonna have to use those days later on. They can’t get sick because they may have to use a sick day as well when the need really arises.”

Earlier this month, Emanuel refused to say whether he was prepared to borrow money, raid tax-increment financing funds or raise taxes again to prevent schools from closing three weeks early.

Contributing: Mitch Armentrout and Lauren FitzPatrick

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