Speakers at first budget hearing make TIF funds a key issue

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At the first hearing on the 2012 budget, officials got an earful from many of the usual CPS critics, like teachers union president Karen Lewis who called for more transparency. 

At the first hearing on the 2012 budget, officials got an earful from many of the usual CPS critics, like teachers union president Karen Lewis who called for more transparency. 
But they also heard from voices, such as laid off workers and parents, who thus far have not been present in the discussion about the proposed $5.1 billion operating budget. The budget was made public last Friday. Wednesday’s hearing was at Lane High School on the North Side and will be followed by a Thursday evening hearing at Westinghouse High School on the West Side and a Friday evening hearing at Simeon High School on the South Side.

The hearing started off with CPS finance and budget officials presenting a Powerpoint on the budget. They said they inherited a $712 million deficit and that they planned on closing it by collecting $150 million more in property taxes, making programmatic and administrative cuts, laying off supplemental teachers and pulling from reserves.  The CPS board of education voted in June to rescind promised raises to unionized workers, which, district officials say, will save the district some $100 million.

Some property tax owners were on hand to question the district’s plan. Also, several janitors and other laid off workers came to the hearing to suggest that CPS officials could have found money to continue to fund their jobs.

A point of contention both among the laid off workers and the property tax owners had to do with tax increment finance districts. In TIFs, taxes are frozen to government bodies and additional monies collected are supposed to be used to improve the area. TIFs are a way to entice developers and spur economic growth in blighted areas.

But Sonia Kwan, a mother of CPS students and a member of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, said that a reported $867 million in Chicago’s TIF fund is unallocated. If Mayor Rahm Emanuel would declare that money a surplus and give CPS its share, that would be more than $400 million—enough to take care of a big portion of the deficit.

Kwan said she would have no problem paying additional property taxes, if the city were utilizing all its resources and the students were getting a more wholesome education.

Our students are entering outdated under-resourced classrooms without art, language or recess,” Kwan said.

Milagros Roman, a custodian, also wanted to know why the TIF money was being held onto when her colleagues were being laid off. In the first round of operational budget cuts, CPS announced they were shrinking the custodial staff. 

Roman said the 200 custodians laid off amounted to 10 percent of the workforce. “Please keep our schools safe and clean for our children,” she said.

CPS Budget Director Ginger Ostro said that CPS does get TIF money, but that it can only be used for capital projects.

However, last year, under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, CPS got $250 million in TIF surplus money. CPS officials have said that last year’s TIF surplus was used in the district’s general operating fund. CPS communications staff would not let Ostro or other budget officials answer questions after the budget hearing.

In presenting the budget, CPS officials also have said they are trying to keep cuts away from the classrooms. But some teachers were on hand to complain about the loss of positions at their schools. About 1,000 teachers were laid off, mostly because the positions were determined to be supplemental or the school didn’t have the enrollment to support the position.

Grace Anderson said her West Side elementary school lost four teachers and that one classroom of students has no permanent teacher and is floating between teachers and a special education instructor.  

Lois Jones, the union representative for Schurz High School, said she thinks some of the teachers who were laid off will eventually be replaced with younger, less expensive teachers. 

“If you were getting heart surgery, you wouldn’t want it done by a surgeon for America,” she said, making reference to the Teach for America program, which brings in teachers from top-notch universities, gives them five weeks of training and places them in high-need schools.

Other speakers at the hearing had specific questions, identifying line items and page numbers, and some of them pointed to mistakes made in the documents. CPS officials have admitted to making errors in enrollment projections and school budgets in a budget document, called school segment reports. 

And while some questioned the veracity of official claims that CPS is penniless, Access Living Education Policy Analyst Rod Estvan said he believes the district’s money problems are real. Estvan, whose group advocates for people with disabilities, analyzes the budget every year.

Estvan, however, did say he had some problems with the way the district planned to spend its revenues. He criticized district officials for not identifying where they are going to make cuts. 
Some $90 million in promised cuts are yet to be determined. CPS Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley said on Friday that at the September board meeting many of the specific cuts will be laid out.

We think this is terrible practice,” Estvan said. “It creates this problem with hoarding. Principals sit on money because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”