State rep. pushes plan to save money for schools

August 22, 2010 (CHICAGO)

"Why are we shorting the schools?" asked Jonathan Goldman of the Raise Your Hand Coalition.

It's a question Goldman and other parents of Chicago public school students are asking as they, once again, demand changes in how the city's public schools are funded.

Sunday morning, Raise Your Hand, Goldman's public education advocacy group, joined Democratic State Rep. John Fritchey as he announced a proposed school funding overhaul by reforming Chicago's tax increment financing districts and diverting those tax dollars to help pay for everything from classrooms to more police officers, all without raising taxes.

"If you take the numbers based on 2009, this program, this legislation would have resulted in $500 million going back to the Chicago Public Schools. That's enough to wipe out $370 million deficit plus a surplus," Fritchey said.

Fritchey, who will be leaving the legislature at the end of the year and is currently running for the Cook County Board seat being vacated by Forrest Claypool, says Chicago's 159 TIF districts have over $1 billion in already-collected property tax dollars sitting idle.

Representatives from the Chicago Teachers Union like the idea.

"The funds are there to properly maintain and staff the class grade programs," the union's Xian Barrett said.

And with school officials laying off more than 1,000 teachers, forcing principals to take a pay freeze and furlough days, along with raiding the system's reserve fund, some students like Julian High School senior Jeremiah Ray wonder what the first day of class will really be like.

"Without good programs and teachers who care, student will not only fail in class, they'll fail in life," Ray said.

Schools count on property taxes to fund 37 percent of their budgets. Experts say although some think they suck money away from schools, tax increment financing districts have long been used as a development tool by cities, including Chicago.

"Where's the money coming from? Where's the money going? Who are the contractors getting the jobs? Who are they giving the money to? It's really important people understand that these are our tax dollars," said Emily Miller of the Better Government Association.

State Rep. Fritchey also said Sunday during his news conference that the city's budget could benefit to the tune of $200 million, had the reforms he's proposing already been in place.

The lawmaker plans to introduce this legislation this week, which also calls for the Board of Education to be exempt from any future TIF districts.

The measure also directs the auditor general to perform a comprehensive audit of TIF districts.

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