LINCOLN SQUARE — During the third of six town hall meetings scheduled throughout his ward, Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th) offered updates on park improvements, a proposed Metra station at Peterson Avenue and street resurfacing projects, but it was the topic of CPS budget cuts that dominated the Q&A portion of the evening.
Ellen O'Keefe, a 28-year veteran CPS teacher, questioned whether it was appropriate to spend money on boathouses and the West Ridge Nature Preserve, a 20-acre plot of land bought by the city from Rosehill Cemetery, when the budgets of schools across the city are being slashed by hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars.
Speaking to an audience of nearly 50 constituents gathered at Swedish Covenant Hospital's Anderson Pavilion, O'Connor countered that the Chicago Board of Education's finances are separate from the Chicago Park District's.
"They're two separate tax entities," said the alderman, adding that by law, the park district is prohibited from simply handing over money to CPS.
If Chicago is to become a world-class city, improvements to parks and investment in neighborhoods are key, said O'Connor.
"Recreational opportunities make this a safer neighborhood," he said.
Not everyone was persuaded by his argument.
"Families will leave the city," said Adenia Linker, 40th Ward resident and CPS parent. "It won't matter what Metra stations we have."
Ann McKenzie, a CPS parent, continued to press the issue of the budget cuts.
"Forty-two children in my daughter's eighth-grade class is not acceptable," she said. She asked what parents could be doing to help restore funds.
"How we get more money" is dependent on resolving the city's and state's massive pension obligations, O'Connor said.
"We have to make some changes," he said, pointing to a "lack of leadership on a ton of people's part."
The alderman backed plans to raise the retirement age for public employees such as police officers and firefighters, to increase employees' pension contributions and to lower cost-of-living pension increases. A looming deadline to fund the Chicago Teachers Union pension by 2014 — after a series of pension holidays — should be eliminated or moved further out, he said.
"If the state rolls that back, that gives us $300 million back," said O'Connor. "If I was a parent, I'd be calling my legislator and saying, 'You need to get on board with this.'"
With reform currently stalled in Springfield, Linker called on the alderman to support a push by parents to return a Tax Increment Financing surplus to CPS.
In a TIF district, tax revenue generated by increased property values goes into a special fund earmarked for improvements in the district. It does not go to taxing bodies like the school system.
"The schools in our ward will lose $5.5 million in budget cuts," Linker said.
O'Connor's response: TIF money already goes to the schools.
Citing a $15 million addition to Mather High School — the alderman's alma mater — and a $13 million project at Peterson Elementary, O'Connor said, "TIF [money] is the only money the board of education has available for infrastructure."
Though attendees brought up the $55 million proposed arena for DePaul University as an example of abuse of TIF money, O'Connor asserted TIF money was vital for development not only to attract industry and jobs but to finance public facilities such as libraries and police stations.
"The answers are not always as simple as people would lead you to believe," he said. "If we didn't have [TIF districts], you'd be paying for it in bonds."
The City Council has, in fact, plowed TIF money back into the budget every year for the past five years, measures for which he voted, said O'Connor.
"Every taxing body gets their money back," he noted. "You can't just give it to CPS."
Linker, who had attempted to arrange a private meeting with O'Connor's staff regarding the TIF surplus, believed she'd made some headway in raising the issue in a public setting.
"I think I heard him say he would support" using TIF money for the schools, Linker said after the town hall.
A youth wellness educator with a background in social and emotional health, Linker said she's concerned about the effects school closings and budget cuts will have on students, particularly those with special needs.
"I see it from the balcony," she said, "and it's a mess."