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CPS Budget Cuts: Parent Group Calls on City to Return TIF Money

 Schools are facing the loss of staff and programs. Raise Your Hand says TIF dollars could close the gap.
Raise Your Hand budget cuts meeting
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ROSCOE VILLAGE — As Chicago Public Schools across the city are learning the grim details of their budget situation for next year, parent groups and education advocates are launching an effort to try to get the city to divert more money to the school system.

Nearly 50 parents and education advocates gathered Wednesday night at Hamlin Park for a meeting organized by Raise Your Hand and led by that group's executive director Wendy Katten.

They started with a roll call of school-by-school budget losses: Mitchell Elementary, down $780,000; Alcott School, down $700,000; Pritzker, down $186,000; Goethe, down $275,000; Beasley, down $550,000; Roosevelt High School, down $1 million; Gage Park High School, down $1 million.

Mitchell parent Janet Meegan said her school likely will have to eliminate its popular dance program, among other cuts. Joshua Freedland, chairman of the local school council at Jamieson Elementary, said his school was looking at being able to "afford $100,000 less stuff and also two less teachers."

Sherise McDaniel and Shereena Allison, who were instrumental in the fight to save Manierre Elementary from CPS' closing list, reported their victory was short-lived: The school looks set to lose four positions next year.

"Our schools just got slammed," Katten said of CPS' decision to shutter 50 schools. "No, our schools can't function with less teachers."

Though Raise Your Hand is in the midst of formulating a plan to increase education funding long term — Illinois ranks 50th in the nation in the amount of school funding provided by state revenues — in the short term, it has its eyes on a specific source of money to plug schools' budget gaps: Tax Increment Financing dollars.

"We have an immediate crisis," said Katten.

She recruited Bill Drew of the CivicLab to provide an abbreviated version of the group's TIF Illumination seminar, which it's presented in 14 wards over the past three months.

According to Drew, in a world without TIFs, in which increased property tax revenue is diverted from the school system and other taxing bodies to promote growth in areas that are deemed to need a shot in the arm, the Chicago Public Schools would receive 54 percent of the total amount of property taxes collected in an area. With TIFs, that number has dipped to 36 percent. In recent years, $450 million in property taxes has been diverted to TIFs annually.

"I would submit that's a fundamental problem and it's at the heart of why we're here tonight,"  Drew said.

Katten's proposal: Form ward-by-ward "TIF squads" to compile the school budget cuts in their reach of the city, disseminate that information to neighbors, and put pressure on their alderman to make the city release TIF funds.

Chicago currently has $1.7 billion in unspent TIF funds. In 2010, then Mayor Richard M. Daley released $90 million in TIF surplus dollars to CPS.

Aldermen "need to know that come election time, this is what they'll be hounded on," Katten said. "Let's be honest: Not enough people came out [to protest school closings] because it didn't affect them. Budget cuts affect everyone."

The figures schools are dealing with for the 2013-14 school year are a direct result of CPS' implementation of a new per-pupil budget system.

The previous quota-based system allocated teaching positions to schools based on enrollment — for example, in elementary schools, the number of students in grades four through eight was divided by 31 to arrive at the number of teachers for those grades. Schools were also provided a counselor, physical education teacher and/or librarian, as well as separate funds for supplies.

Under the per-pupil system, schools are given a dollar amount per student to fund staff positions as well as supplies — $4,140 in the fourth-through-eighth grade scenario referenced above.

In a statement provided to DNAinfo.com Chicago, a CPS spokesman said per-pupil "gives all principals far more control over their budgets and decision-making around how to spend dollars at their schools to best support student learning."

"Autonomy sounds good until you have no art," Katten countered. "In most cases, that's autonomy to figure out what to cut."

As of Friday morning, Raise Your Hand had organized 26 TIF squads.

"We have to take care of each other," said Kate Walsh, a former teacher and wife of a current teacher. "We can either despair and give up or say, 'OK, we can start over.' There's no excuse for us not to solve these problems together."