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LANE TECH AUGUST 10: Budget Hearing at Lane Tech Question Murky Finances

Chicago Public School politics were on display at the first budget hearing at Lane Tech High School last Wednesday, August 10, 2011. According to CPS, the massive "deficit" is due to increased teacher pension costs but CPS is focused on keeping cuts as far away from the classroom as possible.

“We have maintained class size, funding for pre-kindergarten and expanded kindergarten,” CPS interim financial director and treasurer Melanie Shaker told a crowd of roughly 200 people that included six aldermen.

None of the elected city officials chose to speak.

Unlike last year’s budget hearing when most of the corporate media decided to stay home, this year the media goons were out in full force, including the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Times, and several television networks.

While claims of a “billion dollar” deficit last year resulted in few mainstream press questioning budget numbers at the public hearing (Substance, Socialist Worker and NPR were the top three media outlets present last year), this year a full force was out, perhaps a result of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s call for a property tax increase to fund education, something the former mayor was loath to do despite the necessity.

The property tax would increase by $84 on an average $250,000 homeowner tax bill, Shaker said.

“The Chicago Public Schools did not lobby in Springfield for more educational funding,” said Access Living’s Rodney Estvan, who supports the tax increase. “They were in Springfield solely to pass SB7 (an anti-union bill that restricted Chicago teachers right to strike and gut seniority provisions in teacher tenure).”

The crowd was skeptical and upset about CPS budget numbers.

Several speakers noted that the city has TIF funding, a special tax slush fund set up that takes funding for the schools and other municipal services to fund private businesses and city development.

Unlike last year when the former CPS budget officials refused to answer questions at the hearing, this year they attempted to provide short replies, adding that detailed answers will be featured on the CPS website.

“We know the cuts are painful,” Shaker said after SEIU officials noted that 10% of the schools custodial workers were fired, about 200 in all. “We do receive TIF funds, but they must be used for capital (construction) projects, not to solve the budget problem. The mayor now has a TIF task force.”

Substance Editor George Schmidt noted that the current CPS budget that reflects political priorities had three problems 1) the $75 million administration costs came mostly from bond refinancing and the cuts to the janitors, 2) the area offices - which monitor the schools and saw a roughly $60 million increase last year despite the need to lay off 1,500 teachers – have been changed to “networks” but their resource allocations are nowhere to be found in the current budget, and 3) budget deceptions that include $1 million contract services have been over-budgeted by $10 million (pay offs to campaigner donors?).

CPS replied that the Board of Ed saved $15,000 in printing costs, which only addressed Schmidt’s first question about why no printed copies of the budget were available to the public.

When one speaker asked what happened to the lottery money that was supposed to finance the public schools, CPS officials said $600 million went to the schools, but the number was not nearly enough to make a significant impact over the years.

Gage Park teacher and CORE activist Debby Pope generated the highest response on the applause barometer when she questioned why charter funding has gone up in the current budget, despite the fact that charter schools do no better than public schools.

CPS immediately responded that the charter schools are also CPS schools too.

CORE member and retired teacher Jack Silver asked why a school with only 176 students paid out almost $200,000 to cover two administrative positions.

CPS said that they would respond to this question and many others online.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the hearing process with community input should have taken place before the budget was presented, rather than afterwards.

“This looks like a done deal,” Lewis said. “We should be at the table in the beginning, not at the end.”

Kurt Hilgendorf, a high school economics teacher who co-chairs the CTU’s School Finance and Taxation committee, noted that the Board’s decision to rescind the teachers’ 4% contract raise came when there was actually a decline in teacher compensation.

For example, teacher health care costs went down, despite CPS claims it went up, he said.

Labor costs declined from $3.6 billion in 2010, to $3.48 billion in 2011, Hilgendorf told Substance.

Budget officials told Hilgendorf (addressing him by his first name, perhaps to acknowledge his extensive understanding of the budget) that the way-off initial budget deficit projections he earlier noted were a result of the $400 million pension relief Springfield granted CPS last year.

“(Despite) the $400 million pension relief, we still got paid less,” he said afterwards.

The Board of Ed seems to be echoing its corporate masters, who (who to reflect the US Supreme Court decision that corporations are to be considered human beings) despite any evidence of serious cash-flow problems, continue to downsize their workforce and eliminate health care, pension and other worker benefits.



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