CITY HALL — Aldermen gave Chicago Public Schools officials a tongue lashing Friday, chiding CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett for being a no-show at a committee hearing, and deriding the district's budget tactics in the wake of layoffs and school closures.
"We seek to weigh in on the budget," said Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), chairman of the Committee on Education and Child Development, who hastily called the meeting this week ahead of expected Board of Education passage of the 2014 CPS budget later in the month. The City Council does not vote on the CPS budget.
"We take a lot of hits for what you do," Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) told CPS representatives during the meeting. "It's the aldermen who are getting the calls and the emails, because it doesn't seem as if anybody downtown at CPS Headquarters is listening."
To that end, he called it "offensive" that Byrd-Bennett couldn't be troubled to attend the meeting, instead sending lieutenants.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) echoed that, saying he'd been "extremely disappointed over and over and over again" at the absence of high-ranking CPS officials from key City Council sessions on education.
An obviously agitated Ald. Matthew O'Shea (19th) said he couldn't get CPS officials to return his calls.
CPS officials faced tough grilling on the estimated $1 billion budget deficit the district faces this year. "These are challenging financial times," said Annette Gurley, CPS' chief officer of teaching and learning. "Faced with these challenges, CPS is pressing forward."
CPS Budget Director Ginger Ostro again blamed a large chunk of the deficit on pension payments required by state law. Those pension payments jump $405 million this year, she said, from a base of about $200 million to $613 million, which she said translated to about $1,000 a student or 11 percent of the entire CPS budget.
"This is an enormous increase and really is squeezing out other spending," Ostro added.
Yet Chicago Teachers Union attorney George Luscombe III said CPS brought that crisis on itself, by laying claim to the entirely separate Cook County tax levy for CPS teacher pensions in 1995, failing to make payments for 10 years and lobbying for a "pension holiday" the last few years. According to Luscombe, CPS fell $3.2 billion behind in pension obligations while, "They did nothing."
He promised a successful lawsuit should CPS attempt to cut future benefits, even if approved by the General Assembly.
Charter schools and Tax Increment Finance funds encountered stiff criticism from aldermen. Ald. Pat Dowell asked if charter schools were receiving more money for having more students this year, and Ostro said that was true.
"Why would I see an increase in neighborhood elementary schools, but a decrease in their budgets?" Dowell demanded, citing an "unfair disparity."
CPS officials had no set reply to that, except to say that the 3.5 percent decrease in core education, estimated at classrooms cuts of $68 million, was on par with the 3.5 percent in the central office, estimated at $112 million.
Waguespack questioned the hundreds of millions cited almost annually by CPS in cuts at the central office, adding, "Are you using gold ink for print jobs?"
Waguespack also called it a "slap in the face" that schools that seemed successful at raising extra money through fundraising festivals appeared to be targeted for steeper cuts by CPS. Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) echoed that, saying, "We don't want them to become afraid of raising money."
Chairman Thomas demanded a district-wide policy affirming that position.
Several aldermen questioned the availability of TIF funds. Ostro said the budget includes $20 million in TIF funds, from a $37 million TIF surplus the city declared earlier this year. Burnett said TIFs in his wards were being plundered for surpluses.
"TIF money is not the alderman's piggy bank, and it is not the mayor's slush fund," Fioretti said. "It belongs to the people of the City of Chicago."
Fioretti said there were $1.7 billion in TIF funds citywide, but $1.5 billion was already committed to projects — figures confirmed by the Department of Housing and Economic Development.
CTU researcher Pavlyn Jankov testified that the city does not have a master list of TIF projects, and Fioretti called on Office of Budget and Management to create one.
Several aldermen said they'd support shifting education funding from property taxes to the income tax. "We need to be getting Springfield to do its job," said Ald. William Burns (4th), "to adequately fund public schools."
Yet aldermen also attacked CPS for failing to lobby the General Assembly more forcibly on that and other issues.
CPS officials left with a laundry list of requests for additional information from aldermen, and Thomas said it was her intention to get that information next week in time for the committee to weigh it and have another session ahead of the Board of Education meeting Aug. 28.