CHICAGO
09/18/2013 12:36 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2013

Rahm Emanuel Defends $24 Million In School Upgrades, 'Modernization' Amid Pension Crisis

Despite a staggering state and city deficit and ongoing pension crisis, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is defending his recently-revealed plan to spend $24 million on additions and improvements to several of the city's schools.

The mayor wants to spend the cash -- a mix of TIF money and state funds -- to "modernize" and upgrade three schools on the West Side and one on the Northwest Side. Part of Emanuel's plan also includes a brand-new school on the Southeast Side, though it's attracted criticism for being on a potentially chemically toxic site.

"We make those investments, but here's the breaking news: There's much more to do than we have the resources, and we're going to continue to make the tough choices, even though there are more needs than we can meet," Emanuel told reporters Tuesday, according to the Tribune.

A CPS official said due to the nature of the funding sources, the money can only be used for investments and improvements and not for plugging the estimated $1 billion CPS budget deficit.

The City Council's Progressive Caucus introduced an ordinance mandating surplus funds from the city's 165 TIF districts be used to reverse some of the deep budget and staffing cuts at CPS that took hold this summer. The Sun-Times points out that by setting aside the $24 million in TIF funds for the improvements, the mayor has effectively torpedoed the ordinance before it has a chance to go anywhere.

With criticism from both school advocates and budget watchdogs, the mayor is facing an increasingly no-win situation in the wake of his announcement.

Parents and student advocacy groups like Raise Your Hand Illinois have been pushing hard for the improvements like better playgrounds, air-conditioning and computer labs. The district was roundly criticized for lacking air-conditioning in all of its schools during the recent unseasonable heat waves in which students were left to sweat it out in sweltering classrooms.

Detractors of the mayor's plan, meanwhile, say the state simply can't afford to spend.

"On one level, the State of Illinois has over $6 billion in unpaid bills, owes over $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and now has found new money as a surprise to be available for new school construction in Chicago," Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation, a watchdog group, told ABC Chicago.

Libertarian group the Illinois Policy Institute told ABC if pensions are not fixed, the liability adds up to roughly $61,000 of debt per household. Further, even Emanuel admitted local property taxes will go up 150 percent without state pension reform.

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