Although a tax increment financing (TIF) surplus resolution has stalled in the Chicago City Council, one alderman says the fight to redirect such funds to the cash-crunched school system continues.
Ald. John Arena (45th), with the council's Progressive Reform Caucus, spoke about the TIF surplus resolution during a Tuesday evening education forum on Chicago's Northwest Side. Chicago Jobs with Justice hosted the event at Irving Park Baptist Church, 4401 W. Irving Park Road.
Just hours earlier, Budget Committee Chairwoman Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) used a procedural move to delay consideration of the TIF surplus ordinance -- which is backed by 34 aldermen -- by sending it to the Finance Committee.
"It's not done," Arena said of the TIF resolution, introduced by progressive Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). Progressive Reform Caucus members are working with "some other folks to try to modify the resolution" in an effort to "get a [TIF] sweep done within the next month or two," Arena told the crowd.
TIF is the city's economic development subsidy program that uses property tax dollars.
Aldermen who signed onto Ramirez-Rosa's resolution support using TIF surplus funds to help address the financial problems at the Chicago Public Schools, which is grappling with a $480 million budget gap this year.
While tapping TIF surplus funds won't solve the larger budgetary issues facing CPS, Arena said such a move is "intended to be a signal to Springfield that we want to be a participant in a solution to" fixing the school district's fiscal issues, the alderman told Progress Illinois after the forum.
"We understand that folks downstate see us as Chicago with our own problems, but we have to work together," Arena said. "This is a statewide issue. So we are asking them for help. We're asking them for help in the education funding mechanism that they use and in the pension mechanism that they use. Because we're paying twice right now" for teacher pensions.
"What we're trying to do is kind of level that playing field," he added. "We hope that by passing (a TIF surplus measure) that we can say, 'Look, we're gonna put this project on hold and put it toward the CPS crisis we have right now.' We'll show them that we're not just asking for them to come and solve our problems."
Arena acknowledged that the TIF surplus resolution as written is "a bit broad in its scope." Members of the Progressive Reform Caucus are working with Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) and Ameya Pawar (47th) to tweak the measure to include more specifics on what TIF funds could be surplussed, Arena explained.
A TIF surplus of $87.2 million is already going to CPS in the current budget year, the district said. Since 2011, the district has received over $300 million in TIF surplus funds, according to CPS.
City numbers cited in the resolution show that the TIF program had $1.4 billion in funds as of 2015. Arena said he believes there is $150 million in unencumbered TIF funds that could be surplussed and released to the local taxing bodies, including CPS.
"That's the kind of question we need to debate here: should we surplus $150 million? Because, again, whatever we do you have to take it in half, and that's what goes to CPS," Arena said. "If we're gonna do it, we want to make sure that it's substantial enough to have an impact."
Parents, education advocates, community residents and Chicago Teachers Union members were at the community forum, held the same day CPS detailed $120 million in mid-year school budget cuts. The school district is also in the midst of contract negotiations with the union, whose bargaining team rejected a four-year contract offer from the school district last week.
Martin Ritter, a CTU organizer, said contract negotiations are continuing.
In the meantime, he encouraged Chicagoans to take part in next Wednesday's nationwide "walk-in" for public education. The American Federation of Teachers and its partners are spearheading the national day of action. Locally, the CTU is organizing "hundreds" of walk-ins at public schools across the city.
"Parents, teachers, paraprofessionals and students" will "gather outside before school, rally and picket in support of our school, and then walk in together," reads a CTU flyer about the citywide event.
The walk-ins are meant "to show the power of community action to protect public education and demand the schools Chicago's students deserve," the flyer adds.
One day after the walk-ins, Chicago education advocates with Parents 4 Teachers and other groups plan to travel to Springfield on February 18 to lobby for elected school board legislation. Chicago has the only mayor-appointed school board in Illinois. For the past few years, local education activists have been pushing for state legislation that would allow for an elected Chicago Board of Education.
Parents 4 Teachers' Erica Clark said elected school board supporters are "on the cusp of getting a bill out of the House."
"There's a moment right now that we really have to seize," she said.
Although an elected school board is not a cure-all solution to public education problems, Clark said it would represent "a really critical first step."
"We need to have democracy in education," she stressed.