Chicago Board, Chief Face Criticism Over $316-Million Deficit

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The Chicago board of education and Superintendent Ted D. Kimbrough are coming under increasing fire for their failure to spell out how they will address a $315.8-million deficit in next year's budget, the largest ever faced by the school system.

The gap in the district's $2.3-billion budget stems largely from the 7 percent raises the city's interim school board granted last year to teachers and other employees, according to an analysis by the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, which monitors the district's finances.

It was widely known at the time that the district could not afford the raises, but interim board members said they believed that increasing teachers' salaries was critical to the success of the city's nationally watched reform efforts.

Since Mr. Kimbrough announced the deficit on May 1, he and board members have faced a storm of criticism from Chicago politicians who say they are angry that no firm plans have been made in the 10 months since the teachers' contract was announced to confront the shortfall.

Last week, Mr. Kimbrough presented a plan to trim $9.5 million from the deficit by cutting 170 central-office administrative positions.

But his announcement did little to quell critics, who charge that the school system is making a mistake by counting on state legislators in Springfield to bail out the city schools.

"He'll probably announce $3 million more next week, and in that way, three or four years from now, we'll be all set," said Alderman Patrick O'Connor, chairman of the Chicago City Council's education committee. "Unfortunately, school doors open in September, and Chicago can't open with a deficit budget."

Plea for More Aid

Mr. O'Connor said the slow pace at which cuts are being announced will make it difficult for the school system to rally the support in Chicago and the state legislature for what he called "a political solution" to the budget crisis.

"All the key players who could help them are in a position right now where they do not believe they are worth helping," Mr. O'Connor said. "That's a real dilemma."

Nora E. Moreno, a spokesman for Mr. Kimbrough, said that the system has been taking steps all year to cut expenses, but that it is not receiving enough money to pay for all the programs it must provide.

"One of the things that's clear is that, with all the state and federal mandated programs we're bound to do--a lot without getting financed--for those things, we're saying they have to help us find the money," Ms. Moreno said.

When Mr. Kimbrough announced the budget gap, he said he would seek to reduce the shortfall by cutting positions at the central and district offices, deferring school maintenance, eliminating extracurricular activities, and closing between 20 and 30 schools.

He also mentioned that it might be necessary to reopen the board's contracts with employees and reduce the number of instructional time from the required 181 days.

"Unless we can obtain more money," Mr. Kimbrough said at the time, "these cuts will have to be made."

The Chicago Teachers Union and Mr. Kimbrough have pointed out that state contributions to the Chicago public schools have fallen from 53 percent in 1982 to 40 percent this year.

Mr. O'Connor said that he regarded many of the superintendent's proposed cuts as "doomsday" measures and that Mr. Kimbrough's appeal for more state funding was unrealistic, given Gov. Jim Edgar's well-known opposition to tax increases.

The Governor also has called on the Chicago Teachers Union to agree to salary reductions to close the budget gap.

G. Alfred Hess Jr., executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, agreed that the apparent attempt by the school board and Mr. Kimbrough to get more state aid is "a doomed strategy."

"This is bush-league politics in a major-league city," Mr. Hess said. "They have no plan, just a wish list for somebody to bail us out.''

Mayor Blasts Schools

In his inaugural speech on May 8, Mayor Richard Daley also had harsh words for the school system, saying: "The call for new money to sustain what many see as the same old system simply will not fly. Band-Aid solutions will not solve the critical problems of Chicago's school system, nor will a quick infusion of cash."

The Mayor went on to note that some cities are experimenting with voucher plans to improve their schools.

"If we can't break the stranglehold of bureaucracy and school-board politics in Chicago," he added, "we may have to take that next step."

Mr. Daley's deputy press secretary, Carolyn Grisko, said last week that the Mayor had been referring mainly to a choice system within the public schools, although he had not ruled out support for public-private voucher plans if the school system does not improve.

Mr. Kimbrough has proposed raising Chicago property taxes, taxing "junk" food, and increasing the city's real-estate-transfer tax to raise more money for the schools. But Ms. Grisko said Mayor Daley will not support any local tax increases.

"He has held the line on property taxes and cut city expenses," Ms. Grisko said, "and he has told the board that they need to do the same."

Joan Jeter Slay, a member of the interim school board who is now with the school-advocacy group Designs for Change, said board members knew the school system did not have the money to pay for the new labor contracts.

"The interim board made that contract saying they were going to create a deficit, but if we really mean the classroom is our priority, we can't continue to treat teachers like this," Ms. Slay said. "We left a window there, so that if we have to renegotiate, we can."

Teachers' raises this year were financed by shifting money from the school system's pension and building funds, but a series of court challenges and legal hurdles delayed the payment of those raises until earlier this month.

The Chicago Teachers Union is lobbying state legislators hard to extend and increase a temporary state income-tax surcharge that now is used for education.

Until the Illinois legislature resolves such issues, said Jackie Gallagher, assistant to the president for communications, "it's really premature to be talking about [renegotiating] the teachers' contract."

Meanwhile, a group made up of local-school-council members called Schools First is advocating that each school be given the authority to examine its own budget and to recommend cuts.

Bettie Colley, the group's chairman, said members want to keep reductions as removed from classrooms as possible.

Mr. Kimbrough's recommendation to close schools is a step in the wrong direction, she said.

"We are right there with the schools; we know best what's happening," she said. "He cannot tell what's happening with 600 schools in the city."

Vol. 10, Issue 36, Page 1

Published in Print: May 29, 1991, as Chicago Board, Chief Face Criticism Over $316-Million Deficit
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