In the ongoing contract negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union, the battle for public opinion was taken to the streets Thursday by members of the teachers union on Thursday as they protested against possible classroom layoffs, and pay cuts, that seem mandated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. More than 100 Chicago Teachers Union members and allied parents and community leaders from the Grassroots Collaborative gathered downtown that evening on one day’s notice, according to a statement by CTU.
“Demonstrators rallied and protested at City Hall to highlight the mayor’s immediate ability to access hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus tax increment financing (TIF) funds for CPS that he is instead protecting for future development projects he hopes to approve,” they noted.
Chicago is the nation’s third largest school system and faces a $1.1 billion shortfall and CEO Forrest Claypool has said there may be mid-year layoffs of school staff beginning Monday, to be followed by what CTU says is “an illegal, unilateral pay cut to all teachers as part of the district’s position in contract negotiations with the Union.”
One funding source that the CTU wants to see is use of these funds, essentially tax monies that are frozen to help support low income communities, build and establish community resources. While Emanuel’s administration has said that those monies would not be enough, others have said that the funds have been misused and have served as a mayoral slush fund for upscale neighborhoods in the city.
With that consideration, the union notes that “Mayor Emanuel continues to ignore revenue and school funding options that are completely under his control as TIF resources sit in mayoral-controlled accounts, unspent and uncommitted.” The suggestion has received legislative approval with a bill, HB4560, sponsored by Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, that would force the release of these funds to Chicago’s public schools. A majority of Chicago City Council members have signed on in support of a resolution backing the release of the TIF surplus, yet the prospect seems dim for their usage, as the mayor’s office and CPS says that this is not a viable option.
“The important point here is we’re trying to help ourselves,” Currie said at a news conference in January, alongside her colleagues, labor leaders and aldermen. “A lot of complaints from Springfield say that Chicago isn’t doing enough to solve its own problems,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times.
Her bill would “define extra TIF money as all funds that aren’t already committed to a specific project. The mayor now decides what is surplus TIF money and splits it among CPS and several other agencies such as the parks and City Colleges.”
While the bill would give temporary help it was not clear, then or now, how much money would be gained, “because we don’t know exactly how much is obligated at any given moment, and were this legislation to pass, it’s possible new contracts might quickly get signed, claimed Curry.
“With the snap of a finger the mayor could release these TIF funds to CPS and avoid any mid-school year catastrophe, but instead, we’re just days away from another round of completely unnecessary cuts to our schools,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “Threatening teachers and school staff with layoffs was nothing more than a move to put pressure on our members to accept a good-but-not-good-enough proposal while playing games with the lives of hundreds of thousands of CPS students and their families.”
Giving a mixed reaction is Ald. Ameya Pawar who “said he’s all for giving CPS a bigger chunk of the TIF surplus, but that’s “one-time” revenue that will not generate nearly enough money to stave off thousands of teacher layoffs,” according to the Sun-Times. The solution, he said, is another property tax increase – this on top of the highest in the city’s history.
“Even with a $200 million or $300 million TIF surplus, we’re still hundreds of millions of dollars short. We’re going to have to have at least a $300 million property tax levy for the schools. What’s the alternative?” Pawar said. “We have a governor who is failing. He’s letting universities fail. And now, he’s about to let the third-largest school district in the nation fail because of his obsession over unions.”
In some quarters this was seen as another solution, albeit, a bandaid, to shore up another crisis, just as was done with the fire and police pension.
The city does feel that this might just be the idea, but not a complete solution, and Budget Director Alex Holt said using TIF surplus is a “great idea.” That’s why the mayor has been “aggressively” doing just that — to the tune of $700 million since 2011 and $113 million this year alone, she said. Roughly $60 million of that money is earmarked for CPS.
“We froze downtown TIFs. We declared an aggressive surplus. There’s not a whole lot left to surplus. At this point, we probably need to look at canceling current or future projects to generate more money,” Holt said.
Holt also said, “But it’s too early to have a detailed conversation about a property tax increase. The solution for CPS and teacher pensions can’t simply be on the backs of Chicago taxpayers. We all need to be part of the solution. The state does. The city does. We can’t move forward with just one element of it.”
The location of the protest – River Point – was illustrative of the complaint of many in the city who say that TIF monies are given to wealthy developers and affluent neighborhoods. Union leaders says that “The $30 million River Point development is owned, in part, by Larry Levy, a multimillionaire real estate investor and owner of high-end restaurants around the world. Levy has donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Governor Bruce Rauner and other Emanuel allies—including CPS CEO Claypool.”
“However, TIF surplus is a one-time revenue source that doesn’t come close to addressing CPS’ financial concerns. Instead, the State should focus on fixing a discriminatory state funding formula that penalizes Chicago’s students,” wrote City budget spokeswoman Molly Poppe said in an email to the paper.
The Sun-Times also reported that “CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner confirmed that pink slips to CTU members are coming Monday. The district has cut and borrowed its way through a massive budget gap that counted in vain on pension help from state legislators and a Republican governor who’s vowed to veto any deal that does not include major reforms from his “Turnaround Agenda.”
The union rejected the CPS contract proposal in January saying that hundreds of teachers would have had to retire to pay for the raises. Their 27,000 members “also are going to lose a seven percent pension contribution next week that CPS has been making on their behalf since bargaining to do so decades ago,” but “CPS won’t say and the CTU didn’t know how many members will lose their jobs Monday but Sharkey didn’t expect it would be as many as the thousands earlier feared,” according to local media. The expected savings is $26 million.
The Chicago Tribune also reported that school principals had done their best to minimize the damage by foreign expenses on supplies, textbooks and professional development. But, it still won’t be enough, as school CEO, Forrest Claypool said, the district’s finances “still remain grave.” He also noted, “We have bought ourselves more breathing room, but understand it is only breathing room,” he said Wednesday.
Joining the CTU in Thursday’s protest in addition to the Grassroots Collaborative were parents, CPS student activists, members of SEIU Healthcare and community leaders from groups including the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Northside Action for Justice and Pilsen Alliance.