So what were Karen Lewis and Rich Daley talking about during that little “huddle” Tuesday at Gibson’s?
“Maybe she’s trying to find out – you wrote the playbook, Mayor. Tell me how to beat it. He’s badmouthing you all around town,” guesses DNAInfo’s (and Pulitzer Prize Winner) Mark Konkol. But maybe, according to the CTU’s Jackson Potter, it’s something more serious. “I can imagine that it’s somewhat to do with his brother running for governor, and there was likely some talk about, that this didn’t need to happen. You didn’t need to have these massive cuts. There were alternatives,” he speculates, pointing out that the State of Illinois could have found additional revenue.
“We’re one of the few states – we’re an outlier – where our sales tax doesn’t include services,” he says. “Well, all kinds of money goes out the window. We’re one of the few states – seven in the country – with a flat tax, that doesn’t have any progressive qualities to it whatsoever. So the wealthy and their fancy lawyers, pay less than we do. It’s an outrage. ”
Potter says that there’s a central issue on which the CTU and CPS agree. “We wouldn’t deny the fact that there’s a deficit,” he explains. “There’s a lack of investment in our schools. And that’s a structural problem. But we would take issue with the contention that they’ve always been honest and above board. We know they’re playing politics. We know their ultimate goal is to try and blow up our pensions and dismantle them. And creating a crisis helps them do that.”
Mayor Emanuel, the CPS administration and even some editorial pages repeat the sentiment that the cause of this “billion dollar deficit” is the rising cost of teacher pensions. But as Konkol and Potter explain, the real culprit is state and city government, acting in concert to stop paying their lawful share into the coffers years ago.
“I started covering Chicago City Hall for the Daily Southtown in 1999,” says Konkol. “I saw Mayor Daley roll out the big charts that said – here’s where the pension is, and we’re fine, and we need to rebuild all this stuff, so we’re gonna pay that off later.”
As a result, Potter says, a pension fund that was “99% funded” in the early 2000s is today so depleted that CPS must pay $400 million this year just to begin the process of catching up.
Today, in addition to the funding shortages, there’s an effort on the part of many business and civic leaders – and CPS itself – to add the CTU to so-called Senate Bill One. That’s the Mike Madigan Bill that would cut pension benefits state-wide. As currently written, it would have no effect on Chicago teachers, since their fund is the only one in Illinois funded locally by the school district (CPS).
The real reason CPS wants to join its pension fund with SB1, says Potter, is benefit reduction. “Reduce or eliminate cost-of-living adjustments, increase the retirement age, increase employee contributions, that’s the set of things they’re trying to do”, he says.
There has been much said about the potential conflict between rival gangs after fifty schools are closed. There’s potential trouble both along the routes and within the receiving schools. Konkol’s DNAInfo has assembled a detailed interactive map that identifies the gang turf around the affected schools.
As Konkol puts it: “As Karen Lewis always says about her only meeting with Rahm Emanuel, that when they met he allegedly told her – 25% of these kids are not gonna make it and I’m not gonna invest in 25% of the kids. And then go look at that map.”