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CPS finishes year with budget surplus — just in time for CTU contract talks

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates speaks outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on Wednesday alongside CTU President Jesse Sharkey (left). | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates speaks outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on Wednesday alongside CTU President Jesse Sharkey (left). | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools administrators on Wednesday offered some rare positive news about the cash-strapped district’s finances — a year-end budget surplus that Chicago Teachers Union leaders were quick to latch onto as contract negotiations begin.

The district ended the 2018 fiscal year with $324 million left over in CPS’ general operating fund, the first time in three years that fund hasn’t concluded in the red, CPS Controller Melinda Gildart told Board of Education members at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

That was a net change of nearly $600 million compared to the end of the 2017 fiscal year, which ended with a $275 million deficit.

“That’s a drastic change over the last year,” Gildart said.

About $80 million of the positive balance is restricted to grants and future teacher pension fund contributions, Gildart said, leaving the unassigned balance at about $244 million.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said it should bode well for teachers, who began formal contract talks with the city last week with their four-year contract expiring at the end of June.

“The district was clearly saying, ‘We have more money, there’s more resources,’ ” Sharkey said at a CTU press conference ahead of the education board’s monthly meeting.

“They’re trying to position themselves as this being a less sharp and acute fight than in the last contract negotiations. Our expectations are that if there’s resources, those need to find their way into the classrooms,” Sharkey said.

The net balance largely was due to debt restructuring and an uptick in state aid with changes to the state’s education funding formula for CPS, according to Gildart, who said she expects the windfall will “level off some” in next year’s accounting.

“Much of this is driven by things that are not really cash, or are one-time events. So we have to be really pleased with where we are, but I don’t want anyone to get the impression… that all our problems are behind us,” Board President Frank Clark said.

The union submitted their initial contract proposal to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office last week. Sharkey called the initial counter-offer “anemic and incomplete.”

Among their demands, CTU members are seeking five-percent raises and increased hiring of social workers and counselors.

Sharkey cited gains in nurse staffing and class-size reductions made by unionized teachers in Los Angeles, who returned to work Wednesday after a weeklong strike.

“That’s something that we can certainly look to do,” he said.