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Illinois

Cullerton: Bill Could Help Chicago Public Schools Budget Gap, Compromises

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There's still a half a billion dollar hole in the Chicago public schools budget. It could mean thousands of layoffs in the middle of the school year.

A top Chicago Democrat says there is a solution, but some of the people standing in the way are the very people he wants to help.

Chicago Public Schools has had round after round of layoffs in the past couple years. Thousands of employees are gone and district officials say we're in the midst of even more financial pressure.

If the state doesn’t do something by February - there’ll be even more layoffs. So CPS is leaning on state lawmakers for help.

Senate President John Cullerton says he has the answer. He talked at length with WBEZ reporters about a plan he pushed through the Senate. It’s now in limbo in the House of Representatives.

Cullerton’s idea is, well, it’s kind of like Oprah giving away a free car to everyone in her audience. With Cullerton’s plan….everybody gets a free - well, not a car.

But there’s something in this bill to get everyone on board.

“That’s what a compromise is,” Cullerton said. That’s what a package is.”

Republican Governor Bruce Rauner wants a freeze on property taxes. That’s in there.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants some of teacher pensions paid by the state. That’s in there.

Cullerton’s point is this: There’s something for everyone and it saves CPS.

But some of the very people Cullerton wants to help - Chicago teachers - their union doesn’t like it.

“I don’t know the logic of the teachers’ union being opposed to the bill,” Cullerton said. “I think it’s maybe because, you know, the Board of Ed is for it and therefore they have to be against it. That’s all I can figure, you know? The mayor’s for it, they’re against it because they had a fight with him in the past.”

Remember the teachers’ strike? That’s the fight he’s referring to. And there’s been talk of a second teachers strike under Mayor Rahm Emanuel over the districts’ finances.

Cullerton says that’s the point of his bill, which is sometimes referred to as 318, after the bill number it’s been assigned.

“Of course, this would avoid a strike,” Cullerton said. “There wouldn’t be any need for them to lose their pension pick-up in their contract negotiations. There wouldn’t be any layoffs. I don’t know what else they’re striking about.

Stacy Davis Gates is with the Chicago Teachers Union.

“318 is not about stopping a strike,” Gates said. “318 is about destroying our school system.”

Remember when Cullerton put something in this bill for everyone? Cullerton didn’t leave himself out. He really wants to a complete re-make of how state government gives money to schools.

He says under the system now - poor districts - like Chicago - don’t get the money they should. And wealthier districts are getting more than they should.

So Cullerton’s bill puts an expiration date on the current way Illinois funds schools. He says he wants to end a bad system - to make way for a better one.

Davis Gates -- with the Teachers Union -- says that’s the problem; you can’t end school funding without something to replace it.

“This bill is irresponsible,” Gates said. “You cannot say that we are providing a solution to a problem when you eliminate the entire revenue stream to the school district.”

The teachers union also wants big things that aren’t in Cullerton’s bill -- like a new income tax system, an elected school board and the union’s adamant.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on Chicago Public Schools. District leaders say they have only a few months - before some more cuts will be necessary.

Right in the middle of the school year.

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