THE LOOP — Angry at the prospects of city schools not opening in the fall, the Chicago Teachers Union on Thursday slammed Gov. Bruce Rauner and Chicago Public Schools chief Forrest Claypool over their use of schoolchildren as pawns in the state's budget battle.
Claypool, the district's chief executive officer, lashed back that he was "shocked" the union was "surrendering to Gov. Rauner and letting him off the hook." Claypool charged that it was the governor who was holding students hostage across the state and "he should let the children go."
The union's comments came in response to Claypool insisting that CPS won't open in the fall without a state budget, or at least an education spending plan. The state has been without a budget for over a year, and legislators failed to ink a deal this spring.
A day after Claypool called on legislators to stay in session in the General Assembly to reach an education funding deal with Rauner, he told media outlets Wednesday that Chicago schools and many districts statewide would not be able to begin the fall term without it.
"Now we need the governor to end his strategy of pitting one region against another and fix the funding for all the districts suffering under Illinois’ worst-in-the nation approach," Claypool said.
Claypool's comments are an "admission of failure" on behalf of the city and CPS to find stable funding for the school system, said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the teacher union. The union has long suggested that the city could stabilize CPS's budgets through shifting priorities and levying new, progressive taxes.
"Claypool has a lack of a vision for Chicago Public Schools," Sharkey said Thursday at a press conference at the union's River North offices in the Merchandise Mart. "This is the impact failed leadership has had on our children.
"Children can't play outside out of fear of being shot. Now they can't go to school," Sharkey said.
The union is planning a June 22 rally Downtown to put pressure on the state and city to find new revenue for schools.
Sharkey acknowledged that Claypool's comments about next school year might be a negotiating tactic with Springfield, but said the possibility of schools being closed to students in September is a possibility.
What's more likely, Sharkey said, is that the district would have enough cash to open doors in the fall, but could run out of money in a matter of months, a situation he said was not much better than not opening in the first place.
Still, Sharkey said threatening the closure of schools in the fall was "a poor tactic."
"What does that say to educators, to parents thinking about moving elsewhere?" Claypool said.
Claypool countered later Thursday that the district will be strapped after making a mandatory and long overdue $700 million pension payment into the teachers' fund at the end of the month. Claypool has previously said CPS was scraping every last dollar to put together the pension payment this summer and that the district would be hard-pressed to open without additional funding ahead of the fall term.
Even as he repeated complaints that Chicagoans pay double on teacher pensions — contributing to a statewide teacher fund through income taxes while also paying CPS' separate teacher pensions with property taxes — he said Chicago is not alone.
"The majority of schools outside Chicago won't open their doors without an education appropriation budget," he said, adding that only rich districts with substantial reserves would be able to go any length of time without state funding. Many Chicago charter schools, he said, would be in the same boat, as "a lot of them, because they're stand-alone operations, are even more vulnerable."
For all that, Claypool added, he was "optimistic" a deal can be reached on education funding, if not a state budget. He pointed out that both the state House and Senate had agreed on reforms in the formula for education, so that they were "spitting distance with equal funding." If the General Assembly were to agree on an education bill — and both Democrats and Republicans want to see their local schools open in the fall ahead of the general election — the governor would be hard-pressed to veto it.
"The governor right now is the biggest obstacle," Claypool said. "There's many roads to Rome. The question is how do we get there?"
Yet Rauner's Education Secretary Beth Purvis responded with a letter to Claypool Thursday stating the governor's proposal to increase state school funding $240 million while keeping CPS funding level. If Claypool maintains he needs more money, she added, then he'd be the one responsible for the impasse.
Claypool has made it clear CPS needs more, given its looming $1 billion deficit and how the district has struggled to remain open this school year, as it had to implement millions in cuts and lay off hundreds of teachers and staff to keep enough cash on hand to make it through the year.
Claypool said more cuts would be "inevitable" if the district enters next school year with a $1 billion deficit. Yet the teacher union called any further cuts to schools or to personnel next year a non-starter.
Despite the budget impasse, the city and the teachers union are still negotiating a new labor contract. Sharkey said negotiating with so much drama swirling around school funding was a challenge.
"Cuts are off the table," Sharkey said. "We simply cannot withstand it."
While granting that the union is out to protect teacher jobs, Claypool said that may not be an option. "You can't cut and reform your way out of a $1 billion budget deficit," he said.
Union President Karen Lewis said budget cuts will likely be necessary even if Springfield does free up education funding. She said it's imperative that the city increase school funding and called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to enact the union's "revenue recovery package."
"You have to work in tandem," Lewis said of the city and state.
Claypool agreed, but throwing teachers, parents and students into the equation as well.
"The education side is not what's broken," he said, pointing to how academic performance in the city, in terms of test scores and graduation rates, "has never been better." He urged students to "keep studying hard, keep working with your teachers and principals, because they're achieving great things."
Yet he added that students can lobby legislators, just as parents, teachers and elected officials can.
"We're not giving up. We're not gonna surrender," Claypool said. "The fight's not over. ... We have to get the ball over the goal line."
He called it "not a political issue," but "a civil-rights fight," involving equal funding for poorer school districts, including CPS.
Lewis said to show that the union is dedicated to making sure schools are open to children, teachers may be willing to take a "flat" labor contract that would not include any pay increases. She said that the district's proposal to make teachers increase their share in pension payments is a non-starter for the union.
On Wednesday, Claypool charged the Rauner was "trying to divide the state around the issue of education," adding it "just isn't going to work."
After the General Assembly failed to pass a budget bill in its final day of the spring session on Tuesday — with the Senate rejecting a budget with a $7 billion deficit passed by the House, to instead pass an education funding bill the House failed to move on — Rauner barnstormed downstate Wednesday labeling both approaches a "Chicago bailout."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel jumped into the fray Thursday, saying, "People across the state were looking for solutions. Instead of uniting the governor was dividing. Instead of leading he was playing politics, pitting parents and students in one part of the state against parents and students in another. Right now schools across Illinois need a leader, and instead Bruce Rauner is following the Donald Trump playbook of demonizing one group of people for his political advantage."
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