Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday that the city's public schools would have to cut classroom spending to make up for a $634 million contribution to its teacher pensions — a payment the financially troubled district made without help it had been seeking from the Illinois Legislature.
Emanuel, who described the nation's third-largest district as being at "a breaking point," said during a news conference Chicago Public Schools would open on time this fall. But he wouldn't outline what would be cut, saying those details would be discussed later.
Tuesday was the deadline for CPS to make the mandated payment, and for weeks the district had been pushing lawmakers to approve a 40-day delay they said would provide breathing room to find a longer-term solution. But the Illinois House voted down that plan last week, and bill sponsor Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie said Tuesday she "didn't have the votes" for the measure to pass and wouldn't call it again.
House Speaker Michael Madigan later said he thought the bill was "moot" because he was told that CPS planned to make the full payment by the end of the day. Asked whether the district would have enough money remaining to keep classrooms open and pay teachers, the Chicago Democrat responded: "I don't know."
The Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund later confirmed the full payment had been made.
District officials and lawmakers have previously said that without relief, CPS would likely be forced to lay off teachers and staff and increase class sizes.
Spokeswomen for Emanuel and CPS didn't respond Tuesday to repeated requests for comment to elaborate on possible cuts.
Emanuel, at the news conference in Chicago, used the situation to once again call for changes in how pensions are funded. Currently, the state makes the employer contribution to teacher pensions for districts outside Chicago, while CPS pensions are funded by Chicago taxpayers. The mayor calls that system unfair, saying no other districts have to worry about whether to fund pensions or classrooms.
"The school system is supposed to be focused on the education of our children," he said. "Because of the structural inequity and because of the system, Chicago Public Schools now are questioned about whether they make a pension payment, not whether they hit a graduation rate."
Emanuel's critics say CPS gets more money than other districts through other types of state funding.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has proposed a plan that would shift the employer contribution for CPS pensions to the state, among other changes. Emanuel supports that plan, but it hasn't so far gained traction in the Illinois General Assembly, where lawmakers have been consumed with the failure to pass a 2016 budget before Wednesday's start of a new fiscal year.
Rauner also had floated a plan to accelerate $450 million in state grant payments that would have been provided to CPS over the course of the year and for other purposes. Emanuel rejected the offer, with a spokeswoman saying using 2016 funds to pay 2015 pension costs "follows the same path that got the schools into the current financial mess."
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