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Court Ruling May Not Immediately Answer Whether Chicago Public Schools Will Close Early

Leaders at Chicago Public Schools have said a final decision on cutting the academic year short hinges on a key court ruling due Friday afternoon, but a close look at possible outcomes suggests anxious parents and teachers may not get the immediate clarity that CPS has promised.

CPS officials have threatened to end classes on June 1 absent a favorable ruling on Friday in the school district’s civil rights lawsuit against the state. The school district must make a huge pension payment in June and it’s running out of money. Schools leaders hope the suit will force the state to kick in more cash for Chicago.   

The state, however, is looking for the case to be dismissed, which would increase the odds of an early CPS closure.

But there’s another possible outcome that experts say is among the most likely: A judge could deny both the dismissal motion and CPS’ request for fast-track action. Instead, he could let the suit continue -- but at a pace that won’t offer CPS any answers before June.

Here’s what you need to know about the case and the potential outcomes that could play out Friday afternoon in court:

The case

The school system in February filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state and Gov. Bruce Rauner, alleging that Illinois oversees a “separate and unequal” school funding system that discriminates against the district’s mostly minority student population.

At the heart of CPS’ argument is what the state contributes to Chicago teachers’ pensions versus what it pays for teachers in the rest of the state. The state covers either all or nearly all of the retirement costs for teachers outside Chicago but only a fraction of the cost in Chicago.

CPS has increasingly criticized this funding arrangement as it stares down a $719 million payment to the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund due June 30.

CPS had counted on $215 million from the state to help pay its pension bill, but Rauner vetoed that money in December, saying it was contingent on passage of pension reform for the state that never happened. Faced with a resulting mid-year budget hole, the district chopped school budgets and mandated four unpaid days for staff. CPS officials say they’re still short $130 million.

They have said closing early would save $150 million, but the state will dock up to $60 million because CPS would not be open the required number of days.

There are a few alternatives to ending school early, though they all carry negative consequences. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool is counting on a win in the district’s suit to pressure the governor and the state to hand over more cash. But that is far from guaranteed.

Case dismissed

The state wants Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama to throw out CPS’ suit.

If Valderrama agrees on Friday, he will effectively end the case and boost the chances of an early end to the school year. CPS lawyers could appeal, but that process likely would drag out well after the school year ends.

CPS leaders have said they will let parents know soon after the ruling what day school will end. Claypool has threatened a finish date as early as June 1. Classes are currently scheduled to end on June 20.

An early end to the school year would trigger an emergency meeting by the Chicago Teachers Union, which has vowed to fight any additional unpaid days off. They say more unpaid days off could violate the CTU contract. They don’t want teachers to lose any more pay and kids to lose any more school days.

Preliminary injunction granted

In the initial filing, lawyers for CPS and the five parents who sued asked the court for two things: declare the state’s system for funding education illegal and stop the state from doling out money in what CPS calls a discriminatory manner.

]Valderrama won’t rule on the merits of the case Friday. He will instead act on CPS’ request to immediately stop the state from distributing money under its current system. The judge will define the terms of an injunction, but CPS hopes it will lead to additional state money for schools before June.

But CPS can’t bank on that.

Lisa Scruggs is a Chicago attorney with the firm Duane Morris who recently settled a school funding lawsuit against Illinois. She said the judge’s remarks at a recent hearing suggest an injunction will be hard to come by, partly because the judge seemed so concerned about how an injunction might impact other school districts. Scruggs said CPS must meet a high legal bar to win such an injunction.

Also, the judge cannot directly allocate funds to the district. That’s up to state lawmakers. The state is likely to file an appeal as well.

State lawmakers have contemplated changing how the state pays for public schools for decades. In the last three years, lawmakers have picked up the pace and introduced bills to overhaul the funding system, but none have made it to the governor’s desk. Most haven’t even addressed teachers’ pension funding.

CPS and state motions denied, but case proceeds

Judge Valderrama on Friday could reject both the state’s motion to dismiss and the district’s request for a preliminary injunction. This effectively allows the case to continue down what would likely be a long legal road.

Given the complexities in this case, Scruggs said this may be the most likely outcome. This would do little to help CPS decide on ending classes early, and it won’t help the public understand if CPS can afford to stay open through the end of the year.

Each side in the case, though, could declare victory if the case continues.

“CPS would come out and say, ‘See, they tried to throw everything out but we still have something here. The system discriminates against black and brown kids in Chicago,’” Scruggs said. “And then the state would say, ‘We defeated their preliminary injunction. There's no likelihood of success…CPS needs to go figure it out and fix its books.’”

If the lawsuit proceeds, a final ruling could take years. That was the case for the state school funding suit that Scruggs worked on. It was filed by the Chicago Urban League in 2009 but not resolved until this year.

Contributing: WBEZ education Reporter Sarah Karp.

Becky Vevea covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZEducation.

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