Decision On Closing Chicago Public Schools Early Rests On April 28 Court Ruling

courtroom gavel generic
Joe Gratz / Flickr
courtroom gavel generic
Joe Gratz / Flickr

Decision On Closing Chicago Public Schools Early Rests On April 28 Court Ruling

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Updated 5:10 pm

A Cook County judge said Wednesday he plans to rule April 28 on Chicago Public Schools’ civil rights lawsuit against the state over school funding, a move CPS hopes will clarify whether it can keep schools open until June 21 or whether it will end classes three weeks early.

CPS wants Judge Franklin Valderrama to issue a preliminary injunction against the state, which could have the effect of pushing the state to contribute more money to the city schools. The district is facing a budget hole of more than $100 million. With options for making up the cash dwindling as the end of the school year approaches, CPS has said it hopes to decide by May 1 on the final day of school.

Alternatively, Valderrama could side with the state and dismiss the suit, which alleges that the state is discriminating against Chicago’s mostly minority student population. 

Valderrama asked several questions during the Wednesday hearing and heard testimony before a packed courtroom at the Daley Center. The crowd included CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, members of the school board, local clergy and parents who are plaintiffs in the district’s lawsuit. 

In its suit, CPS alleges a “separate and unequal funding system” for public education in Illinois that discriminates against the district’s mostly minority student population. 

Vanessa Valentin is a plaintiff in the case. Her two children attend majority Latino schools in CPS.

“I got involved in this fight because I saw what the cuts did to my school,” Valentin said after the hearing. “I cried in this hearing…how [did the attorneys] just said it’s OK to discriminate. How is that right for us?”

The governor’s education secretary Beth Purvis insists that Governor Bruce Rauner takes the issue of fair school funding “very seriously” and is pushing lawmakers to come up with a more adequate and equitable system to pay for all public schools across the state for this fall.

Unlike previous school funding lawsuits in Illinois and around the country, Chicago’s case focuses mostly on what the state contributes toward teachers’ retirements in CPS versus all other districts. The district argues that CPS gets fewer dollars to pay for its teacher pensions, leaving it with less overall to spend to educate its mostly African American and Latino students.

The district claims the state spends 74 cents to educate Chicago children for every dollar the state spends on the mostly white students outside of the city. The suit claims that the state is violating the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003.

Rauner has vigorously fought CPS’ claims. In the state’s dismissal motion, the state argued that CPS would not suffer “irreparable injury,” as the district claims, if it fails to get extra money from the state. The state also argued that the civil right act cannot force the governor to sign a funding bill or to provide money not previously established by law.

Attorneys for the state raised questions about potential harm to other districts in the rest of the state if the judge intervenes to potentially stop the flow of money to school districts until the funding distribution system is more fair to Chicago.

Purvis echoed the attorneys’ argument in a phone interview with WBEZ.

“To stop all payments going forward is just going to exacerbate the problem for every district,” Purvis said. “We just don’t think this is the answer.”

CPS chief Forrest Claypool said the judge has the latitude to rule in a way that doesn’t hurt any students.

“The judge has broad powers under the Illinois Civil Rights Act to fashion a remedy that protects our children from the irreparable harm of a shortened school year and other harms and cuts to the classroom, without harming anyone else in the state,” Claypool said.

State officials claim that Chicago received $74 million more from the state last year under the general aid funding formula, which is based on enrollment, the number of low-income students and property values. Purvis called on Claypool and other CPS officials to work with state lawmakers to overhaul the entire state funding formula rather than narrowly focus on pension disparities.

“Let’s remember that Forrest Claypool put forward a budget to the CPS school board that they adopted that had a $215 million hole in it for which there was no revenue or appropriations,” Purvis said. “In some ways, this is a crisis of their own making.”

CPS filed its suit in February as a last-ditch effort to find money to make a required $720 million pension payment on June 30. This latest budget crisis was prompted by Rauner’s December veto of $215 million for the school system. CPS had counted on that money to help make its pension payment, but Rauner said it was never guaranteed.

Rauner said the $215 million was contingent on the passage of a larger state pension reform bill, which didn’t happen. Rauner has argued that CPS’ current fiscal woes are due to what he has called “decades of financial mismanagement.”

To fill that $215 million hole, CPS already has instituted a series of mid-year cost-cutting measures, including mandating four unpaid days for staff when classes are not in session and cutting school budgets. CPS still must come up with more than $100 million by June and has threatened to end the school early on June 1 as a last resort.

As an alternative to waiting on a state bailout, some aldermen and advocates want the city to devise its own funding solution. They are pushing ordinances to permanently tap into cash in the city’s tax increment financing districts and to reimpose a corporate head tax.

The odds of passage aren’t good. On Tuesday, the City Council Finance Committee delayed action on a long-stalled TIF ordinance. Using TIF cash to plug current CPS’ budget hole is supported by Rauner but opposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wants the state to pay the primary cost for teacher pensions in Chicago as it does for all other school districts. The mayor also opposes a city head tax and made great hay of repealing it in his first term.

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