Mayor Rahm Emanuel and officials from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have not shown a good faith effort to pursue revenue as a means of offsetting the district’s staggering deficit, according to Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
Sharkey’s comments came during a media event Friday, in the wake of more than 2,000 layoffs in the school system, bringing the total to roughly 3,000 when it comes to the number of teacher and support staff personnel that have been laid off this summer thus far.
“The school district has lots of options,” Sharkey said. “If the mayor took the same amount of energy and initiative to pursue revenue for the schools that he’s taken to pursue revenue when it comes to an infrastructure trust, or that he’s taken when it comes to a river walk, bicycle program, NATO conference, and other things ... There’s a number of ways they could find revenue.”
Accompanied by a number of teachers, parents and students, Sharkey renewed the union’s call for CPS to renegotiate “toxic” interest-rate swap deals and urged Emanuel to dedicate tax increment financing (TIF) funds to the debt-stricken district.
“What this comes down to in the end is a lack of political will and political willingness to pursue revenue and that’s what our public schools really need,” he said.
Sharkey also called for an elected school board, and urged Emanuel to negotiate with lawmakers in the Illinois General Assembly for a progressive state income tax, adding that he doesn’t think the mayor did enough to advocate for legislation that would have extended a pension vacation for CPS.
Emanuel and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett are attributing the district’s reported $1 billion deficit to a massive pension payment CPS owes for fiscal year 2014, which began July 1. District officials claim CPS owes $400 million to the pension system, although reports estimate the amount owed could be as much as $600 million.
As officials attempt to contend with the massive pension debt, the Chicago Board of Education voted in May to close 50 schools across the city, 48 of which were shuttered for good last month. Also, a new per-student budgeting system has resulted in staggering school budget cuts.
“We want to solve the pension fund,” said Sharkey, regarding the union’s proposal to seek out additional revenues. “But we refuse to shoulder [the weight]. Look, we’ve been hit. In 2010, we were hit by mass layoffs. In 2011, we were hit by both mass layoffs and a freeze, right? Last year, there was strike in order to get a 20 percent longer day for a 3 percent increase in pay. And this year again, mass layoffs.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Chicago’s educational workers are now without a job, and principals across the district are struggling to deal with budget reductions that threaten to strip schools of much-needed supplies and resources.
“It’s really hard because this is my first year ... They’re getting now a third teacher. For some of them, this is their third year with a completely different person, and it disrupts the program, it disrupts the education,” said Sean Diller, a former orchestra teacher at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago’s Southwest Side neighborhood of Brighton Park.
Dillar was notified of his dismissal from Kelly High on Friday, only hours before he addressed reporters.
Kelly High’s budget cuts for the 2013-2014 academic year reached $4 million, translating to 23 less teaching positions and the removal of 10 non-teaching staff members.
“That’s going to increase class sizes, reduce class items that we need, including text books,” Dillar said. “It’s a big hole in our education.”
Timothy Meegan, a social studies teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School and parent of an eight year-old enrolled at Ellen Mitchell Elementary School, called budget cuts in CPS' neighborhood schools "criminal."
Mitchell Elementary, located in the Ukranian Village neighborhood, was provided a budget for next year that is $780,000 less than last year’s budget, resulting in three teacher layoffs. According to Meegan, CPS offered the school’s local school council (LSC) a $30,000 “bribe”, or what the district is touting as budget cut relief donated from its reserve funds.
Roosevelt High is experiencing a budget cut of $1.1 million, amounting to 10 fewer teachers. But CPS did not offer the Albany Park high school any additional funds.
“An elected school board would locate new sources of revenue in a crisis like this,” Meegan said.
He echoed Sharkey’s call for Emanuel to allocate TIF funds to a portion of the district’s deficit:
In a statement, Emanuel reiterated that CPS’ deficit, and subsequent layoffs, is a direct result of the district’s pension debt.
"CPS has been forced to make extremely difficult choices to put our school district in the best position to be successful next year and beyond," the mayor said. "This is yet another painful reminder to Springfield that we need immediate pension relief, so we can give our kids the high quality education and opportunity they deserve to succeed in school and life.”
But the education system in Chicago is going to endure, Sharkey said.
“We’re going to have to survive,” he said. “At the end of the day, someone has to stand in front of classrooms across the city.”