Schools Open in Chicago, but Budget Gap Leaves Outlook Unclear

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A federal judge last week issued a temporary restraining order allowing Chicago's schools to operate without a balanced budget for another 10 days. The decision meant that schools finally opened--a week late--but did not insure that they would remain in session.

The board of education turned to the federal court on Sept. 13, as a 10-day reprieve from the state law requiring Chicago schools to balance their budget was running out.

Days earlier, Illinois lawmakers, meeting in a special session in Springfield, had again failed to approve a legislative package to help the Chicago system close its $298 million budget gap. Negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union were also stalled. (See Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993.)

The board's lawyers argued that the school district would be violating the terms of its desegregation consent decree if it did not open schools last week.

In granting the board's request, U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras noted that the "stalemated climate'' in Chicago made it necessary for the court to intervene. His comments also underscored the difficulty that the board of education, the teachers' union, and Illinois politicians have had in coming up with a solution to the budget problem.

"If on this day Israel and the P.L.O. can take a major step toward peace in the Middle East,'' the judge remarked, "we ought to be able to divine solutions to the school crisis.''

Chicago's 411,000 students went back to school on Sept. 15, a week after classes had been scheduled to open.

'Hearts and Lungs'

Meanwhile, leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union postponed a scheduled strike vote, and another negotiating session was scheduled for late last week.

"Believe it or not, we don't want to strike, we will do everything to avoid it, but are not going to sell out our pensions, our seniority, our class sizes, and our members,'' said Jackie Gallagher, the spokeswoman for the union. "They want our hearts and lungs.''

The stickiest negotiating point has become the board's request to transfer money from the teachers' pension fund to its general operating budget. Ms. Gallagher said the union has proposed that the board also borrow from the municipal pension fund, which covers 18,000 other board employees.

In some high schools, the school year opened with confusion. Class periods have been lengthened to 50 minutes from 40 minutes, which meant that programmers had to redo students' schedules at the last minute. The board of education also has increased class size, which has caused some schools to lay off teachers.

The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the board for increasing class size, arguing that negotiations had not been concluded on that item, Ms. Gallagher said.

David Rudd, the spokesman for the board of education, could not be reached last week for comment.

Judicial Remedy Sought

To help close the budget gap and permit schools to continue operating, the board of education's lawyers asked Judge Kocoras to consider a remedy that includes some of the items sought from the legislature and the teachers' union.

The judge is scheduled to rule on the request on Sept. 23. It includes allowing the school district to shift $55 million from the teachers' pension fund to the general operating budget; allowing the board to use half of the $35 million in state compensatory-education money that is supposed to flow directly to schools to plug the deficit; and allowing the School Finance Authority to issue $300 million in bonds for the school system.

In making the argument for such a solution to the budget crisis, the board's lawyers cited the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation lawsuit, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a federal judge could order a school district to raise taxes to fund its share of a desegregation remedy. (See Education Week, April 25, 1990.)

Joan Jeter Slay, the associate director of Designs for Change, a local research and advocacy organization, said the reform community is adamantly opposed to using all of the state compensatory-aid money to balance the budget, but would be willing to allow half of it to go into the general fund.

"This is the only discretionary money that the local school councils have been able to use,'' she said. "If you take that away, what you are doing is tying the councils' hands.''

In the state legislature, a plan put forth by Mayor Richard M. Daley for closing the budget gap has become entangled in a proposal by the powerful president of the Senate for a pilot voucher program in Chicago. But last week, legislators said they would hold a separate vote on the voucher plan, allowing the Chicago package to be considered on its own merits.

Sentiment about the suburban and downstate alliance that has formed against the city schools has grown so bitter that a group of Chicago activists organized a caravan to drive out to suburban Wood Dale, the home of James (Pate) Philip, the president of the Illinois Senate.

The protesters drove around Mr. Philip's neighborhood and tried to enroll their children in Wood Dale schools, said Bernie Noven, the chairman of Parents United for Responsible Education, a grassroots advocacy group in the city.

Chicagoans upset about the school crisis also have picketed downtown businesses that worked to defeat a state amendment on school finance and have marched on City Hall.

Vol. 13, Issue 03

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