Chicago Schools Budget Banks on State Funds Not Yet Approved

"Our goal is to protect pensions and to protect the classroom," CEO Forrest Claypool said

Officials with cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools ratcheted up their plea for help from Springfield on Monday, detailing a proposed $5.7 billion operating budget that banks on nearly $500 million in pension relief from the state that might not get approved.

The spending plan had been expected to be bleak, with officials in the nation's third-largest district struggling to close a more than $1.1 billion shortfall. CPS officials acknowledged that the proposal — which includes teacher layoffs and a property tax increase — was an "unsustainable" combination of borrowing and cuts but said there was no other choice with a $676 million teacher pension payment required by state law.

"Our goal is to protect pensions and to protect the classroom," CEO Forrest Claypool said. "To do that, it means everybody's got to pitch in."

However, attempts at a legislative fix have been unsuccessful. Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to tie financial aid to other reforms such as giving communities across the state power to limit unions' collective bargaining.

The first-term Republican called his third news conference in recent days on the issue, saying he took the school budget as a signal that the district was ready to make "structural changes" and that he was ready to negotiate. He wouldn't say if Illinois could afford the $480 million "pension equity" money CPS wants before Jan. 1, saying he hadn't seen details. He has said before that CPS gets special treatment.

"The power of the teachers union has been overwhelming. Chicago has given and given and given. It's created the financial crisis that the Chicago schools face now," he said, adding that he was headed to Springfield to discuss with legislative leaders.

The Chicago Teachers Union, in the midst of negotiating a new contract, blasted the CPS plan for including money not approved by legislators and for wanting to end the district's practice of picking up a percentage of teachers' retirement contribution. CTU President Karen Lewis said it amounted to a pay cut.

The budget outlines 479 teacher layoffs, though traditionally most are rehired by the district. There are over 1,400 teaching positions to be filled before school starts.

The district's request for state help comes as Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Legislature remain deadlocked over a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Rauner vetoed most of the plan legislative Democrats sent him. Overtime attempts at knocking out a budget have been unproductive, but state spending has continued through court orders and other legislation.

Two House panels heard testimony Monday on a bill authorizing the spending of nearly $5 billion of "pass-through" federal money that doesn't require state matching dollars. The money has been held up in the impasse and is largely earmarked for social service programs. The Senate unanimously approved the plan last week and Rauner has said he's on board. Additional groups asked to be added on Monday, including the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

House lawmakers said they'd be open to amending the plan, though Rauner said Monday he'd have to review any changes.

Also Monday, some House Democrats pushed for Chicago to institute an elected school board like other Illinois school districts. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appoints the board, has said that local school councils already fairly represent the community. Rauner said Monday he doesn't support an elected school board for Chicago and other communities should have the power to appoint board members if voters want it.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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