CITY HALL — A grassroots group of parents and Local School Council members are urging people to call Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office to demand that controversial development funds be given to public schools instead.
And while the mayor's office said it is not formally tracking how many people have heeded the call, a woman answering the phone acknowledged she was keeping a tally.
A group called "Common Sense: Coalition of LSCs for Fair Funding" have seized on the Tax Increment Financing fund issue and are distributing the phone number to their members to lobby for the additional funding to minimize budget cuts to neighborhood schools.
According to Kate Schott Bolduc, a Blaine Elementary LSC parent who helped organize Common Sense, the effort grew out of talks the coalition had late last month with Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
Bolduc urged her to use any surplus in Tax Increment Finance district funds, which act as a fund to spur development in designated areas. CPS' public position has been that the funds, even if drawn on, would be insufficient to address the district's estimated $1 billion deficit, much of which is due to state-mandated boosts in long-overdue pension payments.
"We then launched a mobilization effort to call, email and mail our elected officials, including the mayor," Bolduc said in an email Thursday.
Common Sense, which comprises 75 LSCs, planned to declare Friday "Phone the Mayor Friday." Yet, in calling the Mayor's Office to confirm the phone number and explaining the reason for her call, Bolduc was told the office was "taking a poll on TIF surplus."
"The next day we learned that the Committee on Education and Child Development scheduled a Friday-morning meeting, and we knew it was time to act now," Bolduc added. "We immediately mobilized our members and shared the information with other coalitions and organizations."
Bolduc said she'd heard the Mayor's Office had been "inundated with phone calls," adding, "Operators told our members that they can hardly keep up with the calls."
"We have received a handful of calls, but nothing out of the norm, and there is no tally," said mayoral spokesman Bill McCaffrey. "As you would expect, we get calls all the time on a variety of topics. This week, we received calls on North Lake Shore Drive, pension reform and even the Backstreet Boys concert."
"I know people are calling, and they're probably taking a count," said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd). "But other than that I don't know what's happening."
Government officials, politicians and parent groups have all asked that any available TIF funds formally be declared a surplus and redistributed at least in part to Chicago Public Schools. Fioretti submitted an ordinance last month calling for any TIF surplus to be redistributed, but Emanuel immediately dismissed it, and a procedural move appeared to sidetrack it to the Rules Committee.
"We're looking to move some of those ordinances out," Fioretti said. He then cited recent estimates of $1.7 billion in TIF funding, of which $1.5 billion is supposedly committed to various sorts of projects. "How did it get so committed?" Fioretti added. "More projects that people don't know about. It's becoming much more of a secret slush fund."
Specific budget cuts to neighborhood schools have trickled out, and CPS has not released a full accounting of them. Yet the grassroots group Raise Your Hand had counted up almost $95 million in cuts to neighborhood schools as of mid-July.
The Mayor's Office number being distributed is 312-744-3300. As of Thursday, the number was still being answered by a person, not an answering machine. "We're not taking an official count," said the person, who did not identify herself. "I'm just counting the people who are calling in."
The City Council's Education Committee meets at 10 a.m. Friday in the Council Chamber. The CPS budget is the only item on the agenda.