These are painful, painful times for students, parents and employees in Chicago Public Schools. Nearly 50 schools shut down. Nearly 3,000 employees, more than 1,000 of them teachers, laid off. Programs and classes, even including English and reading, are being considered for cuts by some principals. This, even though, CPS officials recently acknowledged only 52.5 percent of its elementary students met or exceeded state academic standards. Class sizes are on the rise. The city's charter schools have wait lists.
Some parents have predicted a mass exodus from the city to the suburbs, or from public to private schools. And if you can figure out a way to afford that option for your child, who could blame you? CPS officials are about to reveal plans for closing a $1 billion budget gap while upset parents are on pins and needles. Most assuredly that tension is felt by their children, who truly suffer. The CPS budget gap is a full 20 percent of the schools systems' total budget.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel chose to blame the state's pension crisis for the layoffs announced last week. That is a significant part of the problem that must be addressed.
If you don't live in Chicago and you don't think the pension problem will hit you or your family, think again. Elk Grove Village just had its bond rating dropped at about the same time Chicago's rating was cut three notches by Moody's Investor Services. The pension problem is or will be costing each and every one of us, if it hasn't yet.
But back, specifically, to CPS. Part of the problem in Chicago is that the state allowed CPS to take those irresponsible pension "holidays" for three years starting in 2010. School officials had to pay $196 million into Chicago pension fund just completed. This year, $612 million is the required contribution. No more holidays, period. And can we all finally agree that we should be finding a way every year to make the actuarially-required payment amount, not some pain-free legislative guesswork amount. And can we all agree that the investments are not getting the return fund managers like to claim they will? Those should be revised downward from here on out.
Part of the problem, too, is that the Chicago Teachers Union struck last September and won $93 million in increased salaries and benefits. Quality teachers deserve our respect and quality salaries, no question about it. Yet there may need to be a better balance struck.
Children don't have years to waste waiting for CPS to work through this financial crisis. And if families leave the city in droves, all Illinoisans will suffer. And if the children lag from lack of resources and quality education, that will damage all of us as they enter adulthood and cannot compete for jobs in Illinois.
Part of the problem also is a lack of intelligent coordination and planning on the part of CPS. On the very same day last week that layoffs were in the news, the Chicago Tribune carried a report that CPS spent nearly $300,000 to install new lighting in nine schools just before it was announced those schools were being closed.
Left hand, meet right.
This is the kind of news that is maddening to all taxpayers and only feeds the fire of mistrust that burns inside CPS parents. Of course, the lighting project began before the closing list was done, but some thought should have been given to delaying all such projects when officials knew closures were coming.
No one is blameless in this mess. But it's long past time for the mayor, legislators, CPS and CTU officials to move beyond the stalling and rhetoric to get to the painful decisions that will restore CPS to a balanced budget and give our children a fighting chance for their futures.
Let's start hearing about the tough choices ahead now.
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