CPS “fiscal crisis” takes center stage

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CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sounded the fiscal crisis alarm on Wednesday and made clear that the district would like the same pension changes applied to CPS teachers that the state imposed on other public employees.

Next year, CPS will owe the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund $696 million, which, following a pension “holiday,” is 83 percent more than the district was required to pay last year.

“In the absence of action from Springfield, this increase in pension costs will crowd out classroom spending, and we will see further cuts to school budgets,” she said.

Imposing the changes made to the state employee pension system on CPS would save the school district $250 million, Byrd-Bennett said.

The declaration that the district is in financial trouble is an annual ritual. This year, however, the alarm is louder because schools were hit hard with budget cuts last year—a point reiterated numerous times by parents at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Byrd-Bennett’s statement can be expected to kick off a prolonged fight both with the union and in the courts. The state public employee pension changes include reducing the amount of annual cost-of-living increases for both current retirees and future ones, as well as raising the retirement age for workers 45 years and younger. Also, some workers can now get out of their pension and participate in a 401(k)-style contribution plan.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she has other ideas for how to reduce CPS’ teacher pension obligation, though she hasn’t detailed them publicly. “Please don’t take my mother’s or husband’s pension away,” Lewis told the board Wednesday.

Also, four lawsuits have been filed to stop the state pension changes.

These lawsuits could well be successful, said Amanda Kass, budget director and pension specialist for the Center on Tax and Budget Accountability.  She pointed to a recent supreme court ruling in Arizona to explain why. As in Illinois, Arizona’s pension obligation for public employees is spelled out in the state constitution, and Arizona’s Supreme Court recently ruled that cost-of-living increases are a protected benefit, she said. 

It is unclear whether the district has alternative plans, should the Legislature fail to approve the changes for CPS teachers. Under the state constitution, changes to pensions for any public employee, state or local, can be made only by state lawmakers.

Budget cuts

Meanwhile, parents from 17 schools explained to board members how last year’s budget cuts were hurting their schools, and urged members to increase funding in the coming year. “There is nothing left to cut,” they repeatedly told the board.

Many of the parents said their schools lost reading, bilingual and math specialists, as well as art and music positions. Parents from some schools, like Blaine and Audubon, said they had raised extra money to fill the gaps, but that they did not think raising more was possible.

Parents from other schools, like Salazar and Bret Harte, said their schools don’t have parents who can afford large contributions.  

The parents were especially critical of CPS for trying to implement daily physical education when schools hardly have enough money to pay for current teachers.  

Last year, CPS implemented a student-based budgeting system, and the parents urged CPS officials to increase the amount schools will get for each child.

“The per-pupil budget is too low, and it leaves principals to make awful choices,” said Victoria Bryant, a parent at Burr Elementary.

Wendy Katten from the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, which helped set up the parent presentations, declined   to weigh in on the issue of pensions. She presented the board with a two-page memo suggesting places where CPS could find savings, including in central office departments that saw increases last year. She also said that parents are going to Springfield twice in coming months to lobby for a graduated income tax, which could produce more revenue for CPS.

“We love our schools, we love our neighborhoods, we love Chicago,” Katten said. 

In other action:

  • The board renewed five charter and contract school contracts. Chicago Tech Academy got a one-year-renewal, and Providence Englewood got a three-year renewal. Noble Street’s 14 campuses, Namaste Charter, and Chi Arts got five-year contracts.
  • The board approved the school calendar for next year. Classes will open Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day. This year, school started before Labor Day. Officials did not explain why they went back to the traditional post-Labor Day start.
  • The district posted online long-awaited school-by-school discipline data.

http://www.cps.edu/schooldata/Pages/SchoolData.aspx