Take 5: Pension woes, threat of cuts, charter accountability

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The recent court decision on pension reform will have ripple effects as Mayor Emanuel looks for teacher pension relief.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The recent court decision on pension reform will have ripple effects as Mayor Emanuel looks for teacher pension relief.

The decision by the Illinois Supreme Court to throw out the pension reforms approved during Governor Pat Quinn’s administration doesn’t directly affect Chicago schools. However, it will have ripple effects.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel cannot expect to reduce the city’s pension burden by negotiating deals with fire, police or teachers unions that alter the benefits of current employees. “Clearly the law of the land, the Supreme Court, says that avenue for quote-unquote reform is off-limits according to the constitution,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said Friday, according to the Tribune. “They’re going to need to look elsewhere in order to try to find solutions.”

So what options does Emanuel have? He is hoping to get a city-owned casino that eventually could pump money into education. He would like to see the union agree to have members pay their own pension pick up, but that would essentially result in a 7 percent pay cut for teachers and the union has already rejected that idea. The CTU says it has a list of ideas that could increase revenue that include renegotiating tax swaps and getting rid of some unneeded programs.

Another idea is to spread payments out over a longer period of time. According to Crain’s Greg Hinz: “So we gotta pay. But the court didn’t say how fast we have to pay. Indeed, so long as every retiree gets his or her full check each month, the court indicated that the state could amortize unfunded pension liability over many decades.”

2. Threat or warning?… With the news of the Supreme Court ruling, Fox 32 hit the airwaves with a scary story that CPS could run out of money sometime next year if something doesn’t happen.

It would not be the first time that CPS found itself dead broke. In December of 1979, CPS could not cover payroll and, in January, the teachers went on strike. The situation led the Illinois General Assembly to create the School Finance Authority which had the power to issue bonds for expenses and levy separate property tax for debt service.

Fox reporter Mike Flannery says the danger of CPS running out of money should or could lead some to again reconsider Gov. Bruce Rauner’s idea of having CPS declare bankruptcy. But, as we have pointed out, that would require a change in state law and it is unlikely that enough state lawmakers would support it to make that happen.

The Fox piece also included an interview with board member Andrea Zopp, who dismissed the idea of CPS running out of money. But she does take the opportunity to warn that if CPS doesn’t find some solution to its $1.1 billion budget hole, mass teacher layoffs will take place and class sizes will increase. “And keep in mind that a significant portion of our expenses at the Board of Ed are salaries,” she says.

3. Poor record-keeping … CPS still doesn’t know whether student athletes are eligible to play sports, according to a Sun-Times follow-up on its investigation of last year’s Curie Metro High School basketball team. That’s despite promising to enforce the rules after the Curie team lost its city title for that reason.

This past season, CPS was missing eligibility sheets for just 15 percent of the 480 games on the Chicago Public League conference schedule, according to the story. And the district had only five of the 64 sheets from the post-season playoffs that it’s supposed to keep on file. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey didn’t have an explanation for why the district didn’t do better of keeping the records — which are required by state law — but said officials continue to “streamline and enhance its eligibility-monitoring system to ensure the proper records are maintained.”

Meanwhile, the Curie boys basketball coach, Mike Oliver, said the new findings “show it wasn’t us. It is the system, the sports administration. How can they go a whole year and not keep checking up on this? It is unbelievable that it is the same issue as last year.”

4. Charter accountability… In an In these Times opinion piece, Urban Prep teacher Dave Woo argues that his charter school should unionize to create a check on how the operator is spending money. In February, teachers at Urban Prep and North Lawndale College Prep announced their intent to unionize. Teachers said that they wanted to form a union so they would be included in the decision making at their schools.

Woo writes that one big problem is that there’s little scrutiny on spending. Soon after announcing the intent to form a union, he and other teachers filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found that Urban Prep spends more than $250,000 renting office space downtown, $70,000 to take staff on a retreat and that CEO Tim King makes $220,000 a year to run Urban Prep’s three schools, while the CEO of the entire district makes $250,000.

Woo admits there is nothing illegal about the spending, but that it does raise some ethical questions. “Efforts by teachers and staff at schools like Urban Prep should also encourage taxpayers to ask their own questions about the kinds of schools they are funding, and why teachers feel the need to organize in order to stand up to administrators,” he concludes.

5. Checking in on TFA … Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach for America, tells Fortune Magazine her organization is trying to recruit college students as early as their sophomore year through internships or expose them to alumni doing their “awesome work” in other ways. That’s because applications to the teaching program have fallen by 10 percent in recent years. She also says they’re making customized pathways such as a social justice or policy track.

“This generation is really entrepreneurial and interested in social justice,” Beard says in the Q&A. “Companies have figured that out, and as a social justice organization, we need to get that message out. We need to double-down and tell our stories of impact.”

Responding to criticism that TFA’s two-year commitment causes instability in schools, as many teachers don’t stick around much longer, Beard says TFA “would lose people” if it increased the length of its teaching commitment. And 60 percent of teachers do stay for a third year, she added.

One more thing … Yet another school district cancelled a contract connected to SUPES’ co-owner Gary Solomon. What’s interesting is that Lancaster, Penn., cut ties with a related group last week because of Solomon’s troubled departure from Niles West High School more than a decade ago — and not the current FBI probe into SUPES. A Sun-Times story about Solomon’s use of racial slurs and his inappropriate behaviors with students at Niles also prompted school districts in Fayette County, Kent., and DeKalb County, to cut ties with PROACT.

Photo: Pension reform/shutterstock.com

  • Taylor Loomis

    I talked my daughter out of being a teacher …they way Chicago and Illinois treat teachers…. she didn’t have to look into it very hard

  • Front Row

    Does anyone think Mike Flannery has any credibility? He has attacked workers for decades now and its obvious his objectivity is greatly undermined by his reactionary rhetoric. I would think Catalyst would do better at finding a more credible source to quote.