CITY HALL — Projecting "a real sense of urgency" over "a crisis that's going to hit the classrooms in the next 10 weeks," a group of North Side politicians on Tuesday put forth a range of options to ease budget cuts in Chicago Public Schools.
In a news conference at City Hall, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) suggested the city draw on surplus funds set aside for economic development as a "one-time fix" to ease budget constraints at neighborhood schools.
State Representatives Ann Williams (D-Chicago) and Greg Harris (D-Chicago) called for pension reform and an overhaul to the way education is funded statewide.
CPS claims a $1 billion deficit in the next school year, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel insisting 45 percent of that is due to pension payments mandated by law. The deficit has led to budget cuts at neighborhood schools, with Williams saying she had come directly from a protest against budget cuts earlier in the day at Blaine Elementary.
"The schools are getting shortchanged," added Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-Chicago). "Having a full day of school while cutting back core classes is like inviting somebody over for a buffet and there's no food on the table."
Politicians and parents both stressed that budget cuts were undoing many of the education reforms trumpeted by the mayor, such as a longer school day, additional arts education and the expansion of programs emphasizing science, technology engineering and math.
Pawar said CPS had just invested $2 million in capital funding for the Science Technology Engineering and Math program at Lake View High School, but that the school was now facing heavy budget cuts.
"The proposed CPS cuts are going to cut that program, rendering the program non-operational," Pawar said.
"We were asked to have a longer day for our children," said Burley Elementary parent Andee Harris. "But now we're looking at sort of an empty day without art and music and gym and reading intervention and math intervention."
Fellow Burley parent Amy Shulman fought back tears as she said she felt "selfish" staying in Chicago and that "we need to potentially leave the city." Shulman said her school is facing a kindergarten class size of 32, with 34 in first and second grade.
"I'm disappointed with everybody," Shulman said. "There [are] a lot of people to blame for this situation we have."
The group did its best not to assess blame and to strive for joint solutions, with Pawar drawing particular attention to how it is "inaccurate" and "false" to blame Emanuel for education problems that have festered for 40 years.
Fritchey emphasized how it's not the North Side fighting to take funding from the South Side or West Side, but that everyone has to work toward solutions for all.
"The city is in this together. This is not going to be an issue of haves and have-nots," Fritchey said. "This is not a black and white and brown problem, it's a green problem. The money needs to be found."
Fritchey backed Pawar's call for the city to release surplus Tax Increment Finance district funds for school use, saying, "There are few economic-development projects right now that are more deserving of TIF dollars than our kids are."
The Mayor's Office, however, did not respond to requests for a response to Pawar's idea to draw on TIF funds to ease school budget cuts. Rep. Harris likewise said the state needs to shift school funding from property taxes to a progressive income tax, but added that would require constitutional changes and "it's not an easy process."
Pawar called it "a crisis that's going to hit the classrooms in the next 10 weeks," and Williams called for "a real sense of urgency" in addressing the CPS shortfall.
"They don't care who fixes the problems," Fritchey said of CPS parents and students. "They want the problems fixed."