Chicago school officials took an unprecedented step Wednesday, cancelling a scheduled board meeting so they could rush down to Springfield, hats in hand, to beg for millions of new dollars as Illinois lawmakers try to agree on a new state budget. The message from Arne Duncan is familiar: give us more money or we'll cut programs and pile additional taxes on city residents who have already been buried this year-- and we're not talking snow.
"We're appealing to the adults in Springfield to put aside their differences, put aside their egos, put aside their personality battles, and do the right thing by children," said Arne Duncan, Chicago Public Schools CEO.
The rhetoric may be a bit sharper, and the numbers a bit different, but the message to Illinois lawmakers is the same as last year, and the year before: give us more money. This time it's $180 million new dollars or they'll have to cut after-school programs, delay high school reform efforts, postpone construction projects and raise property taxes for the twelfth time in the last 14 years, this time tacking an additional $30 onto the bill of an average homeowner.
"I think we start to look at that as a possibility whenever we're not getting what's required from the state. That is what's on the backs of our local taxpayers," said Rufus Williams, Chicago school board president.
"If they keep coming back to homeowners and small businesses, for all these taxes, it's going to be a vacant city. Nobody is going to be able to afford to live here," said Barbara Head, Tax Reform Action Coalition.
Chicago's homeowners, including Head, are already facing a record property tax hike in Mayor Daley's new budget. Sales taxes are up a bit to keep CTA trains and buses running. They'll be higher than any city in the country when the Cook County sales tax increase takes effect in July.
And now the board of education is talking about another boost in property taxes.
"It wears on the citizens, but more importantly, it affects businesses as they make their decisions," said Lawrence Msall, Civic Federation.
The Civic Federation says the board of education has to keep cutting fat out of its own budget instead of piling it on the taxpayers.
"We simply cannot continue to look to the taxpayers for more money without looking at our own operational efficiencies," said Msall.
"Some of these administrators, for goodness' sake, we think that there's certainly plenty of waste everywhere," said Head.
The board of education claims to be virtually fat-free, but that's a hard sell in a $5 billion budget.
Meanwhile, in Springfield, Governor Blagojevich and all of the legislative leaders, with the exception of House Speaker Michael Madigan, are publicly supporting a massive public works program that would also resolve the school funding issue. But given the political problems in Springfield it appears to be a long shot.