POLITICS

This Drastic Proposal Shows What Dire Straits Chicago Schools Are In

Lawmakers said finances in the nation's third-largest school district are "near collapse."

Nearly three years after the single largest school closing in history, the Chicago Public School system is facing another budget crisis so massive, some state lawmakers are suggesting a state takeover and even bankruptcy. 

Backed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois state Republicans on Wednesday made an aggressive proposal that would wrest control of Chicago's financially troubled school system from the city and hand it over to the state-selected board of managers. 

CPS faces sinking bond ratings and more than $1 billion in debt for the 2016 fiscal year, largely due to a massive $676 million pension liability.

During a joint press conference Wednesday, state Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin characterized their proposal as a "lifeline" for the CPS financial system they said was "near collapse." 

“We don’t come to this position lightly,” Radogno said. “But the track record of Chicago and its public school system is abysmal."

The proposal would include Chicago in a state law -- from which it is currently exempt -- that allows a state-appointed board to take over for the mayor's hand-picked Chicago Board of Education and effectively run the district until it's financially stable. The five- to seven-member board would also negotiate with the teachers union but "cannot unilaterally cancel or modify existing collective bargaining agreements."  

State Democrats, who hold a supermajority in both chambers, strongly oppose the idea. Senate President John Cullerton was blunt: "This is not going to happen," the Chicago Democrat told the Associated Press Wednesday. 

Similarly, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union -- two parties that almost never see eye-to-eye -- shot back at the proposal with digs at Rauner's inability to pass a state budget. Illinois has been without a budget since last July. 

The CTU pegged the proposal to Rauner and called it "just the latest example of the ‘bull in a china shop’ methods in which [the governor] clumsily attempts to lead."

Emanuel, who was in D.C. for a conference, said through a spokeswoman that he was "100 percent opposed" to the plan. 

"If the governor was serious about helping Chicago students, he should start by proposing -- and passing -- a budget that fully funds education and treats CPS students like every other child in the state," said Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn.

In addition to being excluded from the state law that allows independent takeover of failing school districts, Chicago's school system is also excluded from the state fund that pays into teacher pensions. As a result, CPS receives just a fraction of state pension funding compared to other districts. 

Though the Republican-backed legislation is unlikely to pass in a Democrat-controlled legislature, if it succeeded it would not be the first time CPS's finances were handed to an oversight board. In 1980, lawmakers created the Chicago School Finance Authority with appointees by both the mayor and the governor, according to Catalyst Chicago. 

Wednesday's proposal is just the latest in a string of hardships and scandals the school district has faced since the massive school closing in 2013: The shutterings forced hundreds of CPS students to take longer, often more dangerous routes to their new schools; enrollment has dropped; the former schools chief was indicted on bribery and a kickback scheme; and needy students lost out on untold dollars worth of perfectly good school supplies from the shuttered schools due to poor record-keeping. 

Due to its looming debt, CPS also is facing midyear layoffs and another potential teachers strike. Meanwhile, even more schools could close this year in a district that comprises mostly low-income black and Latino children

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