CN July 11, 2013

What if Springfield had passed comprehensive pension reform? How would that have affected the Chicago Public Schools this year? Would it have restored toilet paper to Von Steuben’s operating budget?

That’s actually a serious question, because in the past few weeks CPS has been saying repeatedly that the classroom-level cuts the schools are experiencing is  due to the fact that they have such a huge pension bill to pay this year. But unless the relief came in the form of another “pension holiday” – a process that only shifts the burden into the future and makes everything more expensive – it’s hard to see how making teachers pay more into health-care or cutting some benefits would make much of a dent in that “billion dollar deficit”.

Catalyst’s Sarah Karp puts things into perspective. “Even if you paid four hundred million this year (into the pension fund), you still have a six hundred-million dollar deficit,” she explains. “The real reason why the schools are seeing cuts, I believe, is that they want to make these schools more efficient.”

CPS has instituted a new budgeting method that’s based on a set amount per-pupil. “I think before if you looked at how the per-pupil played out, it varied a lot,” she says. “Even though you might have (in the past) had a formula for determining how schools were getting their budgets,  you also had a lot of times when they’d get special programs, they’d get grants…they had a lot of ‘extras’ at every school…I think that Tim Cawley, who’s the Chief Administrative Officer, he knew darn well that this was going to happen. That there would be a lot of cuts. And I think that he just thinks that schools need to be more efficient. I don’t really think it had that much to do with the so-called deficit. I mean we have a deficit every year. And come the audit – the yearly audit, we almost always have a surplus.”

Ben Joravsky (Chicago Reader) also joins us this week, so it’s a perfect time to ask the journalist who’s most associated with reporting on TIF funding about the recent calls for Mayor Emanuel to plow some unused TIF money back into the schools. But the Sun-Times reports in an editorial that there’s only about ten million dollars in surplus right now, and that wouldn’t be of much help.

“We don’t know how much money is in these TIF reserves,” Joravsky tells us. “There’s the $457 million which flies out the window every year into the TIF fund, half of which the people of Chicago think they’e paying for schools, when in fact they’re paying into the TIF.” 457 million is the number County Clerk David Orr released today, along with an announcement that, henceforth, TIF contributions will, indeed, be listed on County tax bills.

The issue is how much money that’s left over from year to year is unspent, and Joravsky says over the decades it has really added up. “And, if you count – each TIF, every year, has an annual budget – so if you were to go through the 160 of those budgets and count up the reserves they claim are sitting in a fund, you get $1.7 billion as of 2011,” he claims. “We know this because there have been some reformers…who’ve actually gone through and counted them.  The City is now claiming that, in actuality, even though the annual reports say there’s 1.7 billion in reserves, that money has been committed to projects. What projects it’s been committed to, they won’t tell us. Those projects are not itemized in the annual reports…so the reality is that it’s  one of those things where we’re just going to have to take the Mayor at his word.”

And, if the Mayor is to be believed, there’s only about ten million dollars left – not enough to make a difference for the struggling schools.

Joravsky says he latest deal that approved Wrigley Field signage might be a kind of tax Trojan Horse. “They’re eventually going to figure out a way to have the public subsidize this,” he speculates. “Probably through giving it a landmark designation that enables them to avoid paying property taxes. So I’ve always believed that they’re they’re trying to figure out how they can plausibly foist this on the public in a way that  the public believes is revenue-neutral.”

And finally, the Tribune is moving all its newspapers into a new company, separating hem from their other businesses.  Joravsky has some thoughts about that, too.  “I know its not because they’re trying to promote good journalism. I’m sure it’s all about sales price and taxes and that kind of thing.”

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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