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City Council 'Thoroughly Depressed' After Education Funding Hearing

By Ted Cox | July 10, 2015 6:54pm | Updated on July 11, 2015 12:25pm
 Ald. Harry Osterman and CPS CEO Jesse Ruiz talk before Friday's Education Committee hearing.
Ald. Harry Osterman and CPS CEO Jesse Ruiz talk before Friday's Education Committee hearing.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — A City Council committee heard more than three hours of testimony Friday on the dire state of education funding, but took no action on the matter.

Ald. Will Burns (4th), chairman of the Education Committee that held the hearing, called it "a discussion of the issues." Yet even he had to ironically thank one for witness for delivering the "good news" that action is unlikely in the General Assembly — which held a meeting of the educational facilities task force on Saturday in Chicago — while concluding another person's testimony with the remark: "We're all thoroughly depressed now."

"It just basically replayed what's been going on in Springfield for the City Council," said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). He decried a lack of "solutions" to the $1.1 billion deficit faced by Chicago Public Schools, worsened by the requirement to make long-overdue teacher pension payments.

 Backed by state Rep. Christian Mitchell, state Sen. Andy Manar lobbied for an education funding overhaul Friday.
Backed by state Rep. Christian Mitchell, state Sen. Andy Manar lobbied for an education funding overhaul Friday.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) pushed for aldermen to lobby for a bill he's submitted that would change the formula for funding public schools. "The current funding system is broken," he said, adding that his bill offered "a comprehensive overhaul of the status quo."

"It's criminal," said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, who also lobbied for the bill. She called the state's problems in funding education "consistent, persistent and unacceptable."

"There's nothing funkier ... than how we fund state schools," Burns said.

Manar's bill would change the formula in allotting money to schools by prioritizing spending based on income, race and bilingual students. State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) estimated that, if passed, it would add $141 million to CPS' state funding next year.

Yet even Manar and Mitchell were forced to admit that it didn't ease the state's budget crunch, but only created a new formula for distributing the current funds, which they hoped would force the General Assembly to recognize education needs more money.

"It just divides the pie differently," said Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th). "It seems like we're just moving the problem around."

"What more should we be doing?" Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th) said.

"This [hearing] today is helpful," Manar said, to get the word out, but otherwise he had little to request of aldermen except to ask them to lobby their state senators and representatives to support his bill.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Jesse Ruiz and Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro presented Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal to either unify all state teacher pensions in one fund, instead of keeping Chicago's separate, or to execute an "all in" approach to a "grand bargain," calling for several measures to be adopted to reform education funding.

Emanuel has insisted Chicagoans are unfairly charged with paying double on teacher pension funds, both funding CPS pension payments through property taxes and the state's teacher pension contribution through their income taxes.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) echoed that, saying, "Each and every Chicago taxpayer is double-taxed." In a news conference before the committee meeting, she said, "We're taking a kick in the gut."

Yet state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) testified, "It's hard for me to see that Springfield is ready to step up to the plate." She said the General Assembly was not eager to take on Chicago's teacher pension woes, and that Emanuel's complicated counterproposal was "a little less than palatable" to legislators.

She pointed to Emanuel's call for CPS teachers to pay their entire pension contribution, which would amount to a 7 percent cut in take-home pay. "How likely is that to happen?" Currie said, and indeed, the Chicago Teachers Union has already come out in opposition to that idea.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) thanked Currie for her "candor," while Burns more pointedly thanked her for the "good news."

Yet Waguespack said, "That was very helpful to hear that. I was hearing that from other state representatives as well," that Emanuel's proposals "weren't realistic."

Ruiz said CPS budgeted $4,390 a pupil for the school year just ended, but added ominously that he couldn't release an estimate for next year until individual school budgets are delivered to principals on Monday.

Ruiz made little attempt to defend a recent decision to cut costs by halting funding for elementary-school sports, calling it one of the "unfortunate decisions we have to make." He added, "It's up to each individual principal," to determine whether to fund school sports programs and, if so, how to pay for them.

"We're all thoroughly depressed now," Burns said after Ruiz's testimony.

"It's a revenue issue," said Stacy Davis Gates, CTU's political director. She insisted "increased revenue" was necessary to address the state and the city's budget crunches.

Garza agreed, saying, "We need to focus on more progressive forms of revenue so we don't keep kicking the can down the road."

Yet all acknowledged there was no easy source of new revenue with the General Assembly locked in a budget impasse with Gov. Bruce Rauner.

CPS and the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund also announced Friday that talks to reach a compromise on a schedule for pension payments going forward had broken off.

"After meeting for a number of open conversations regarding potential solutions to the district’s cash-flow difficulties, we have come to the mutual conclusion that an agreement cannot be reached at this time," said CTPF Executive Director Charles Burbridge. "These conversations provided us with a constructive dialogue that clearly laid out each organization’s needs. We have concluded that alternative options will need to be explored in order to resolve CPS’ budget deficit while providing security for our members."

At Saturday's hearing of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, held at Hope Presbyterian Church at 1354 W. 61st St., lawmakers discussed a 10-year master plan for updating facilities in CPS.

At the hearing, many testified about the large class sizes and poor building conditions at CPS, according to Raise Your Hand, a parent group that has been critical of CPS leaders.

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