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Lawmakers Back Plan To Balance Chicago Schools' Budget

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Illinois lawmakers last week finally approved a legislative package to eliminate the Chicago schools' budget deficit and remove the threat of closure that had hung over the school system for months.

Acting on Nov. 14, the day before the schools were scheduled to shut down again, the legislature approved the plan by the slimmest of margins.

The measure, which passed the House on a 71-to-44 vote, cleared the Senate by a vote of 37 to 19--only one vote more than the number required for it to take effect immediately upon Gov. Jim Edgar's signature.

"This legislation will improve the fiscal management of the Chicago school system and the quality of education the system provides,'' the Governor said in signing the measure.

But observers noted that the agreement simply provides a way for the system to operate for the next two years and does nothing to address the Chicago schools' long-term financial problems, which are shared by dozens of other Illinois districts.

"This was a brinkmanship scenario designed to get the Governor and the Mayor past their next elections,'' said G. Alfred Hess Jr., the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy.

Eyeing the Elections?

School supporters are hoping that Mr. Edgar, who recently announced that he will seek re-election next year, would tackle the school-finance problem in a second term, possibly by raising the state income tax.

In two years, Mr. Hess said, the Chicago schools are expected to face a deficit of at least $240 million. Mayor Richard M. Daley has been pushing to bring casino gambling to the city as a way of raising money for the schools over the long haul.

Although the measure authorizes the Chicago school board or city council to place a property-tax referendum on the ballot in 1995, Chicago residents have not approved a tax hike for the schools since the late 1960's.

Mayor Daley also is up for re-election in 1995.

General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson said in a statement that the agreement "represents compromise and tough decisions,'' but allowed her to, "for once, breath a sigh of relief.''

"We must look to the future,'' Ms. Johnson added. "We, as citizens of Illinois, must not stop pushing for adequate funding of our schools.''

The agreement calls for the Chicago School Finance Authority to sell bonds to raise $378 million over the next two years, paying them off with its tax-levy revenue. But the package eliminates a politically unpopular plan to borrow $110 million over that time from the Chicago teacher-pension fund.

It also siphons $32 million in state compensatory-aid money away from schools attended by low-income children to use in balancing the budget. Even so, poor students still will be targeted for about 95 percent of the money they were supposed to receive under the program, according to Designs for Change, a research and advocacy group that had lobbied hard against the cuts.

"We are disappointed that they took the money,'' said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of the group, "but what we've accomplished is that the program is intact.''

Rules on 'Reserve Teachers'

Although many politicians had seized on the budget crisis as an opportunity to modify union work rules, the final agreement includes only minor changes. Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, had insisted that no package be approved until the teachers' union had negotiated and ratified a new contract with the school board.

One reform provision that will take effect when the new contract expires in September 1995 allows school faculties to waive contractual work rules by a simple majority, instead of the 63.5 percent majority now required.

In addition, the agreement incorporates into law new contractual procedures for "reserve teachers''--those who lose their positions because of changes in school programs or shifts in enrollment. While Governor Edgar and other Republicans pointed out that the new rules provide a way for such teachers to eventually be terminated, school-reform advocates expressed concern that the provisions would hamper principals' freedom to hire teachers of their own choice.

Jacqueline B. Vaughn, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, wrote in a letter to members that the agreement succeeded in preserving seniority rights.

"We were flexible, but were not willing to compromise in critical areas,'' she wrote. "Our strategy was correct.''

Chicago principals also succeeded in fighting off a move to give unelected committees of teachers in schools the right to sign off on purchases of up to $10,000. Instead, principals will have to clear such expenditures with the local school councils.

Authority Over Custodians

The agreement also:

  • Puts principals in charge of the custodians and food-service employees in their schools.
  • Gives the S.F.A. increased oversight powers, including the power to initiate management audits of the district.
  • Creates a position of inspector general at the finance authority to review the school board's spending practices.
  • Moves up the date each year by which the finance authority must approve a balanced spending plan for the schools, to Aug. 15 from Aug. 31.


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