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Cullerton hopes CPS can cope until school aid formula revised

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said Tuesday he’s hopeful Chicago Public Schools can get through the current school year with a Band-Aid approach of borrowing and union concessions to give the General Assembly time to revise the state school aid formula.

One day after declaring that his own “turnaround agenda” hinges on a more equitable funding formula for school districts across Illinois, Cullerton emerged from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s annual City Hall reception for Chicago lawmakers confident in his ability to deliver an education funding solution that has eluded the General Assembly for decades.

“What I’m proposing is no special deals for Chicago. In fact, we’re going to eliminate the [two] special deals that Chicago has,” Cullerton said.

“One . . . is the special ed bloc grant where the city gets extra money. We’re going to eliminate that. Number two, Chicago has a special deal in that they don’t get any money for their [teacher] pensions. We’re going to eliminate that, too. When you do that and you do a new school aid formula that’s focused on providing money for the poorer school districts statewide, Chicago will probably benefit . . . The pension parity is worth about $200 million.”

Cullerton said he’s well aware that changing the state school aid formula has been talked about for decades with no results to show for it.

But this time, he believes he can get it done because there are plenty of needy school districts outside Chicago.

“There’s more winners than losers in the state. The majority of Senator [Christine] Radogno’s caucus would be a big winner if the school aid formula was changed. That’s why I’m hopeful that we can work together in a bipartisan way with our governor, who I think is very open-minded on this topic,” Cullerton said.

“It’s not a bailout. In fact, it’s the opposite of a bailout. It is one formula for the whole state, eliminating special deals, which would benefit the poorer school districts.”

Last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner and Republican legislative leaders floated their plan to seize control over Chicago Public Schools and pave the way for CPS to declare bankruptcy.

Cullerton, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Emanuel shot down the idea, marking a new and bitter chapter in the state budget stalemate triggered by Rauner’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms.

That heightened fears that the $480 million in state pension help already built into the CPS budget would not arrive in time to keep the wolf away from the door.

But Cullerton said Tuesday he hopes a mix of $875 million in borrowing and the savings generated from a new teachers contract that’s almost certain to phase out a 7 percent pension pick-up will allow CPS to get through the current school year until May, when the school aid formula is redone.

“They’re going to borrow. That apparently is enough to get them to May, I guess. The big pension payment that is due is [on] June 30,” he said.

Doomsday for CPS has been a movable target, but Cullerton said there’s a good reason.

“Maybe it’s because they hadn’t thought about borrowing and they wanted to avoid that,” he said.

Every year, Emanuel holds a reception for state lawmakers to outline his Springfield agenda on the eve of the governor’s State of the State address.

This year’s reception comes at a time when Emanuel’s once-legendary clout is at an all-time low because of the political furor over his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

Cullerton, the mayor’s closest ally in Springfield, acknowledged the obvious.

“There was a barrage of really bad publicity in the national [media]. That certainly probably put him off his game. But he’s still the mayor of Chicago. The economic driver of the state. There’s a lot of legislators down there who care about Chicago, obviously. And we look to him for his help and his guidance,” Cullerton said.

“A lot of these programs that we’re talking about, there’s combinations of money from the city, state and the federal government. Whether it be housing, transportation, capital or education. So, we have to work together. He’s back on his game, if he was ever off of it.”

State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) added: “I hope he has some remaining credibility because we’re going to need to have a mayor of Chicago [with clout to get things done]. There’s a strong anti-Chicago animus already. To move on some of these issues is not easy, even if we had a mayor who had a 90 percent approval rating.”

Also attending Tuesday’s City Hall reception was State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), who has introduced a bill that would allow Chicagoans to recall their embattled mayor.

Did the famously foul-mouthed mayor of Chicago have any choice words for Ford about the recall bill?

“Oh, no . . . We had a private conversation . . . He wants to work together,” Ford said.

“I’m sure no one likes a bill that seems to be directly aimed at them. But he understands my position and I understand his position. It’s not about him. It’s not about me. It’s clearly about the people of Chicago.”