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Aldermen fail to get straight answers at CPS finance briefing

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool is to announce plans to open two new "classical model" schools later Monday. | Sun-Times files

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool finally briefed the City Council Thursday about the shaky state of school finances, but aldermen came away from the closed-door meetings frustrated by his evasive answers.

Claypool said he has built into his budget Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promise to assume $80 million in school security costs with the expectation the city’s contribution would continue “in perpetuity,” as Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) put it.

But he refused to say how high those expenses might go or where the city would get that money.

“He just kind of shrugged his shoulders and was like, ‘That’s not my thing. That’s not my issue. I don’t know,’ ” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus.

Sources have told the Chicago Sun-Times the mayor is counting on using the windfall generated by a $3 billion debt refinancing at dramatically reduce interest rates.

Aldermen also complained that they didn’t get a straight answer from Claypool about the steep cost of borrowing at exorbitant interest rates that staved off an early closing or delayed open of Chicago Public Schools. At first, he gave them a debt service figure of $400 million. Moments later, he said it might be more like $590 million.

“I said, ‘That’s ten percent of your budget. Isn’t there a cheaper way to finance?’” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), former chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus.

“They said they’re gonna refinance nine percent bonds to an interest rate closer to six percent and save $16 million this year alone in doing that. To them, that’s a great thing.”

One of the briefings really got heated when Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former school counselor with close ties to the Chicago Teachers Union, complained about the cuts to special education, music and other support staff at one of her local schools, and Claypool challenged her claims.

“She said, ‘I can show you exactly where the cuts are and exactly how many people. Why don’t you come down to the school and you can see.’ And he said he didn’t believe what Garza was saying. That really set her off,” Waguespack said.

“It wasn’t conducive to trying to answer an alderman. We’ve been waiting to talk to him in a public hearing for over a year or more. And he came in with kind of a condescending attitude. People were raising their voices. It was very tense. Aldermen were not pulling punches. Aldermen have had it with him.”

Claypool returned a phone call from the Chicago Sun-Times, but refused to make any public comment about the private briefings or the criticisms from aldermen.

After a long and bitter fight, the campaign for school funding reform succeeded beyond the city’s wildest dreams.

Instead of $300 million, CPS got a $450 million windfall that authorizes a $125 million property tax increase for teacher pensions—on top of the $250 million increase imposed last year.

That’s why Emanuel promised to fill the gap that remains by assuming $80 million in school security costs.

“I asked whether there is inflation tied into that. And is it $80 million plus a COLA or some type of graduated amount that’s needed. That was not answered. It is in perpetuity, though. $80 million-a-year. Forever more. And that’s just the floor. It could go higher,” Villegas said.

“They’re trying to refer those costs back to the city since we’re in charge of public safety. But if we’re gonna play that game, we need to take a look at the total numbers of what the city gives to them already.

There was a lot of, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ If you’re coming to someone asking them for a favor, you’d better have all the information that they’re looking for.”