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Editorial: A final countdown for lawmakers to rescue CPS

The doomsday scenario in which Chicago Public Schools administrators impose draconian cuts because of a massive budget deficit is weeks away.

Thousands of layoffs, according to CPS officials. Notices for them would begin going out in mid-January for cuts that would be effective Feb. 8, the start of the second semester for CPS. That’s Plan B for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his hand-picked Board of Education if the state fails to come through with hundreds of millions to balance its current operating budget.

We urge lawmakers who will head to Springfield in a few weeks to get behind legislation sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton that has the best chance of helping CPS as well as other poor school districts across the state. Cullerton’s plan deserves support from House Speaker Michael Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner. Neither has come up with a better idea.


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The bill, which still needs work, could spare CPS from devastating cuts and provide a path to repairing the state’s broken school funding formula.

Cullerton’s bill passed in the Senate in August, but it was flawed because it failed to offer specific changes to the school funding formula. It only put an expiration date on the current formula that for years has created greater financial disparity between poverty-stricken schools and those in middle class and wealthy communities. Understandably, that made parents and educators queasy. Asked about the position of the Chicago Teachers Union on the bill, Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said CTU conveyed concerns over the absence of a concrete formula.

There is time to rewrite the bill to include the numbers, and Manar told us that Cullerton is leaning that way. Manar has been crafting a new school funding formula for years and we supported his latest bill last spring that would give a financial boost to school districts hit hard by poor property values. Property taxes provide the bulk of schools’ funding.

Manar said some downstate districts have had to cut up to a third of their teachers. They are in the same dire straits as CPS but fewer students have been affected. CPS has more than 300,000 students.

“CPS’ problems in large part stem from a flawed funding formula like other districts in the state,” Manar said. “But the other districts aren’t as large.”

Under Cullerton’s current bill, the state would contribute about $200 million to help cover Chicago teacher pensions. Additionally, it alters the pension payment schedule for CPS, which would give the city a partial pension holiday in 2016 and 2017. We can’t get behind that. Pension holidays played a hefty role in the current financial mess. Lawmakers need to get rid of that and still find a way to rescue CPS.

Rauner wants a property-tax freeze, which was included in Cullerton’s bill in August. In the spirit of compromise, Democrats need to stick with it.

To secure support from Chicago Democrats, legislation needs an OK from CPS and its union. There is reluctance to let go of the block grant CPS receives from the state in exchange for a new funding formula, which could potentially be much more generous to city schools. But there is a fear of the unknown. Sample data from Manar’s proposed bill last spring showed that CPS would be better off, at least in the short term, under a new formula. School districts in Elgin, Aurora, Waukegan and downstate communities would also win.

Still, there would be losers. Just ask educators in Schaumburg, Arlington Heights and other northwest suburbs. Their districts would lose millions with a new formula.

But it’s about equity. This isn’t the cure-all for the financial woes threatening to further cripple CPS and other poor districts, but this bill comes along at the right time for the largest school district in the state and several others barely getting by.

Follow the Editorial Board on Twitter: @csteditorials

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