WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.Chicago Public Schools’ budget woes are causing a growing number of teachers and parents to pressure Mayor Richard Daley on TIF funding for schools. TIFs are the city’s tax increment financing districts. And they collect about $500 million in property taxes a year. Mayor Daley has the final say in how the money is spent. But the Chicago Teacher’s Union and a group of mostly north side parents say TIFs are siphoning away millions of dollars from Chicago Public Schools—money that would help balance the books.
It’s hard to talk about TIFs without talking to Ben Joravsky. He reports for the Chicago Reader, where I freelance. And for years he’s tried getting Chicagoans to pay attention to where TIF dollars are going.
JORAVSKY: I thought, ‘It’s just a matter of time before everybody is writing about this. You know, all the other newspaper reporters are writing about this [and] it becomes part of the conversation.’ And then it took about two years for me to realize they’re not going to cover this.
TIF districts are supposed to spur economic development in blighted areas. They do this by freezing property taxes at their current level for 23 years. When taxes go up, the extra cash goes toward things like infrastructure improvements and subsidies to developers.
But Joravsky discovered public schools and other taxing bodies get shortchanged by TIFs.
JORAVSKY: What really irked me was that the leaders of the schools were so cynical that they would allow this to continue year after year while pretending 1) that the TIFs actually benefited the schools and 2) that Mayor Daley was a great benefactor of public education even though he was taking a good chunk of their change from them and giving them only a portion back.
Now that CPS is struggling to close an estimated $370 million budget gap, other taxpayers are scrutinizing what the mayor is doing with TIF money.
GOLDMAN: There’s hundreds of thousands of families that utilize the services of Chicago Public Schools, and they are all watching right now.
That’s Jonathan Goldman. He has two children enrolled in Drummond, a coveted elementary school in Bucktown. He ran unsuccessfully for state rep in this year’s primary. And he’s also a member of Raise Your Hand, a new group made up of mostly white, middle class parents.
The group recently headed downtown to try and meet with Daley at his City Hall office. They want him to return $275 million in TIF money to CPS.
GOLDMAN: It’ll be a great day when our schools have all the funding they need and Mayor Daley has to hold a bake sale to fund his TIF districts.
The group dropped off 1,200 letters for the mayor. Goldman says he hasn’t heard from Daley yet but he believes the mayor understands the gravity of the situation.
GOLDMAN: If you want to keep families in the city and stop the exodus where people move just because they don’t have a good school for their kids, then you need to address the school system.
Goldman says the families most likely to move out of the city—and pack up their tax dollars with them—are middle class parents, the same group of people who have been the driving force behind Raise Your Hand.
If Raise Your Hand is going to have any sway, it has to find powerful allies. And they may have one in the new president of the Chicago Teachers Union—Karen Lewis. Lewis argued before the board of education last month that CPS could balance its books with TIF money.
LEWIS: Not one board member acknowledged that raising class sizes would save a hundred million dollars less than simply returning TIF funds to schools.
Schools chief Ron Huberman counters it’s not possible to solve the district’s budget gap with TIF dollars.
HUBERMAN: CPS has no control over TIFs. It is a state law that controls tax increment financing. [6 sec]
Meanwhile Daley says TIF money is already working its way back to CPS.
DALEY: Most of our schools are built with money from the TIF districts, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s a lot of money. You could ask everyone. We build schools, libraries, and parks.
But parents with Raise Your Hand want the mayor to find a way to exempt schools from TIFs. They say they’ll continue to pressure the mayor on that point. And Goldman says he’s gotten Huberman’s attention.
After Goldman mentioned the big T word at the board of education, he says he got an unexpected phone call from the CPS chief that night.
GOLDMAN: Nope, nope. He just called me. He indicated that they want to work with the parents on the budget issues.
Goldman says the district has set up a meeting with him for next week. He also plans to talk with the teachers union to hammer out their next move.