Legislature dispels looming cloud over budget

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A bill passed in January by the General Assembly makes permanent much of the financial flexibility that enabled the Reform Board to balance its budget, provide raises and launch new programs.

Last school year, that flexibility gave the board access to well over $100 million in once-earmarked money.

In 1995, when lawmakers gave Mayor Richard M. Daley the authority to appoint a new School Board and other top school officials, they also suspended—until 1999—many of the financial restrictions that previous Boards of Education had operated under.

The 1995 law allows the Reform Board to combine several local property taxes into one fund. The board quickly took advantage of its new power by re-directing $90 million into its general operating budget. The biggest chunk—$62.2 million—came from teacher pension funds. (At press time, figures for 1996 were not available.)

The law also consolidated 27 different state grants into two “block grants.” In 1995, the board moved $8.3 million from state-funded programs into its general operating budget.

And it put the financial oversight powers of the Chicago School Finance Authority on hold until 1999. Chief among them were the requirement that the School Board make public a three-year financial plan showing how revenues would match planned expenditures, and veto power over the board’s over-all budget.

2 out of 3

In January, the General Assembly made permanent the property tax consolidation and the state block grants. But it rejected the board’s bid to keep the Finance Authority permanently out of its business. However, it took a step in that direction by permanently severing the Finance Authority’s control over the Office of the Inspector General, which was to return in 1999. Under the new arrangement, the mayor does the appointing, and the inspector general reports to the Reform Board.

School reform groups, including Designs for Change and Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), had opposed the recent legislation because of the Inspector General provision. “The independence of this office is critical so LSCs know that when they call the Inspector General, they will get someone who will listen to their concerns and who won’t be improperly influenced,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE.

School Board lobbyist Greg Richmond dismisses the reformers’ concerns, noting that the mayor and the governor typically appoint inspectors to oversee other agencies under their authority.

The new law also makes permanent an accountability measure, called “intervention,” that goes beyond remediation and probation. Unlike those two measures, intervention gives the board the right to dismiss teachers without going through the evaluation and remediation processes required by law.

Schools on probation can be subjected to intervention if the board decides they have not made satisfactory progress. To date, the School Board has not used its intervention powers, which were granted as “a four-year pilot program” in the 1995 law.