Take 5: Pension deadline looms, finding a schools chief, Noble decision

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A $634 million teacher pension payment is due June 30th. CPS says it cannot pay more than $200 million without drastic cuts to classrooms.

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A $634 million teacher pension payment is due June 30th. CPS says it cannot pay more than $200 million without drastic cuts to classrooms.

The big question raised last week is what in the world CPS plans to do about its required $634 million payment to the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund. That’s because City Hall insiders have been whispering about the possibility of paying just $200 million of its obligation, due on June 30.

City Hall sources are telling the Sun-Times that “a $200 million payment is all the system can afford without massive layoffs and classroom cuts.” Money for the pension payment was supposed to be built into the 2015 budget; however, the district is apparently blaming its cash flow fix on the bond rating drop. That might be the case, as last year the district ended the school year with just eight days of cash on hand. And it patched together this year’s budget by borrowing two additional months’ worth of revenue from next year (putting the district in even worst straits for next year, when the pension payment is supposed to be even higher).

That leaves CPS without any accounting tricks in the hat — though parent activists from the group Raise Your Hand and many others have suggested diverting tax increment financing funds or a modest tax hike to pay the bills. In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel called this a “tipping point” and said that “Springfield must take action to ensure the city is not forced to make a decision that forces us to choose between making a $634 million pension payment and the educational investments that our children need and deserve.”

Meanwhile Springfield remains deadlocked over its own state budget. Gov. Bruce Rauner has threatened to suspend funding to dozens of areas, including construction projects at schools and state facilities, according to the Chicago Tribune. Democrats dismissed the rhetoric as “largely symbolic since money for the programs will dry up automatically if a deal is not reached” by July 1.

All of this means it’ll continue to be a waiting game here in Chicago for schools and teachers. Principals tell Catalyst they’ve got rough budgets put together, and — once the district gives them final tallies — would need a week or two to finalize them and get them approved from their LSCs. Contract negotiations between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union will continue to be slow going until then.

2. Finding a new schools chief … The Sun-Times offers an interesting story about how other large school districts have a more public process for picking a new schools chief. In Miami-Dade County, for example, the district’s elected school board  members choose a chief. In Philadelphia, an appointed School Reform Commission brings finalists in for public interviews before picking a candidate.

In contrast, Chicago’s search remains a mystery. Emanuel hasn’t laid out his timetable for finding a replacement for CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who abruptly resigned just over two weeks ago in the midst of an FBI corruption probe connected to a $20 million, no-bid contract. The Sun-Times also reports that the district finally hired an auditor last week at a cost of $46,800 to examine how it awards no-bid contracts.

Still, the newspaper notes that the hiring of the auditor, Accenture, comes after weeks of delays — which are due in part to the “very thorough selection process” that was used to arrive at a final decision, according to a district spokesman. Earlier this month, the Better Government Association’s Andy Shaw wrote that CPS desperately needed an audit to “pinpoint all the administrative and bureaucratic bungles that contributed to this fiasco.”

3. No Noble in Uptown …  Activists hailed Noble’s decision last Thursday to abandon plans to relocate a school into the Uptown neighborhood. The Noble Academy now plans to move to a CPS-owned building on the Near North Side that’s already being used by the Chicago International Charter School ChicagoQuest campus, the Chicago Tribune reports.

CPS board members will still need to approve the move, which would be temporary until Noble finds a permanent location. A CPS spokesman said the decision to nix the Uptown proposal was made by both CPS and Noble Academy “after hearing from the community,” according to the Sun-Times. Bowing to public pressure earlier this month, Noble also decided to scrap potential plans to open a new school in the Rogers Park area.

4. Accounting for equity …Starting next year, Denver will rate its public schools based on, among other factors, a measure of equity between white students and students of color, according to Chalkbeat Colorado (one of Catalyst’s sister publications). The equity rating will be based on measures of differences between groups’ graduation rates, test scores, and growth, most of which are currently included in other sections of the framework. Schools will have to earn a yellow, the third-highest rating, in equity to be deemed a blue or green school (the two top ratings).

The changes mean a number of schools schools will have lower rankings than they do under the current system, according to officials.

5. Compostable lunch plates … Chicago and five of the other biggest school districts in the country have agreed to ditch polystyrene lunch trays and replace them with compostable plates, NPR reports. The new plates are made out of recycled newsprint, which can break down in just weeks in commercial composting facilities — compared to the previous petroleum based plastic plates “that won’t end break down for hundreds of years.”

Apart from Chicago, the school districts involved include New York City, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade County and Orlando. Only New York City and Los Angeles have municipal composting programs, meaning the others “lack plants that turn organic waste into soil.” CPS has received grants to pilot a composting program at five schools. In the long run, composting is cheaper than sending garbage to a landfill, advocates say.