Chicago School Board Sues the State Over Funding
By Juan Perez Jr., Patrick M. O'Connell and Bill Ruthhart
Moving a long-running political battle into the courtroom, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school board sued Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education on Tuesday, accusing the state of employing "separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois."
Chicago Public Schools officials described the legal move as the "last stand" for a cash-strapped district that's "on the brink," while deepening what had been a war of words between Emanuel's school system and Rauner's administration over education funding.
The lawsuit, filed in the Cook County Chancery Division by the Chicago Board of Education on behalf of five African-American and Hispanic CPS families, asks a judge to bar the state from distributing state aid in "a manner that discriminates against plaintiffs."
"The state treats CPS's schoolchildren, who are predominantly African American and Hispanic, as second-class children, relegated to the back of the state's education funding school bus," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit asks that the state be found in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act for maintaining what CPS calls "separate and unequal" systems for funding school districts and pension obligations. It notes that most CPS students are minorities and poor, while public school students in the rest of the state are "predominantly white."
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, backed during a Tuesday news conference by a panel of African-American and Latino clergy and district families, said the district hoped a judge would respond to the request for a rapid intervention by ruling in "months, not years," and before additional cuts are needed.
"The clock is ticking for our schools and our kids, and for CPS," he said.
Beth Purvis, Rauner's education secretary, said in a statement that the state is still reviewing the lawsuit.
"But it is important to remember that the bipartisan, bicameral school funding commission just issued its report, which recommends an equitable school funding formula that defines adequacy according to the needs of students within each school district," Purvis said.
She was referring to a recently released report by the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission that called for an increase of at least $3.5 billion in school money over the next decade. The report said more should be spent on districts with a higher population of poor students but did not provide a detailed formula for state officials to use.
"The governor remains focused on moving forward these recommendations and hopes that CPS will be a partner in that endeavor," Purvis said in her statement.
The district announced the lawsuit as Rauner discussed his Wednesday budget address on Facebook Live, and as Emanuel was starting to deliver a speech on diversity to the Executives' Club of Chicago.
The mayor chose that appearance before some of the city's top business leaders to take Rauner to task for what Emanuel described as a lack of leadership on funding education and an inability to stabilize the state's finances.
"Tomorrow, our governor is going to give a speech, a budget. He has to deliver a balanced budget that funds education. Our kids are too important," Emanuel said. "If I'm the mayor, I'm the chief executive of this city. You expect me to deliver a balanced budget, which I do. ... We need a balanced budget that funds education and moves this state forward."
District officials used stark language in describing CPS' future as they summarized their case during an afternoon news conference at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.
"I want to reinforce the urgency of what's happening today, and that this really is our last stand," CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said. "We have hoped for a legislative solution, and that has not happened. Therefore, we're left with this as an option."
"We can wait no longer," Claypool said. "CPS is on the brink."
Lindblom students used the occasion to cram a stairwell at the school to loudly call for Claypool's resignation. Their principal's explanation of the lawsuit didn't ease their anger over cuts to schools.
"He's taking funding from our schools, which is in turn hurting us," said Jasmine Lewis, a Lindblom senior. "We can't keep after-school activities ... and it's not OK," she said.
CPS officials have long hinted they would pursue a lawsuit -- identifying legal action, budget cuts and borrowing as the district's options to close gaps left by unrealized state assistance.
The lawsuit repeats the district's long-held argument that it receives 15 percent of the state's education funding, despite having nearly 20 percent of the students. According to the lawsuit, 90 percent of CPS students are children of color, while in the rest of the state "public school children are predominantly white."
While the lawsuit seeks to lay blame for CPS' financial woes at the feet of state government, it does not note that the district remains drenched in red ink despite Emanuel's decision to repeatedly raise taxes in an effort to stabilize woeful city and school district finances. Also missing is the fact that CPS shortfalls were aggravated in large part by decades of deliberately underfunding employee pensions.
Since 2012, though, CPS has increased its property taxes each year by the maximum allowed under state law, which ties the increases to the rate of inflation. Chicago home and business owners also will start paying an additional $250 million per year in property taxes to CPS, with all the money going to the district's underfunded teacher pension system.
That came after Emanuel successfully pushed for a new $45 million per year property tax used to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to finance school construction projects.
Through legislation in Springfield, Emanuel's administration had struck a tentative deal for the state to send CPS an additional $215 million for teacher pensions, but that fell through when Rauner vetoed the plan. The governor argued the money was contingent on Democratic leaders agreeing to broader state pension reforms, which did not materialize.
Because of Rauner's veto, according to the district, CPS is in the midst of instituting midyear cuts for the second year in a row.
The district has put in place four furlough days, a $46 million school spending freeze, $18 million in potential cuts to independently operated schools and the elimination of $5 million in training programs to make up for roughly half of the unrealized assumption that state lawmakers would send $215 million to the district's annual budget.
"Those additional budget cuts produce real and irreparable harm to CPS's students," the lawsuit said.
The suit blames a lack of state funding for reduced course offerings, a lack of access to education technology and "inadequate resources" for students from unstable home and family environments.
Emanuel said that Rauner's veto penalized "the city of Chicago and the teachers, the taxpayers and most importantly the kids."
"Under the clause in the Civil Rights Act for the state of Illinois, that can't happen," he said. "And the point of the lawsuit is, under the civil rights clause of the state of Illinois, the way education is funded is in violation of the civil rights of our children."
The state has been accused of discrimination in its educational funding in previous lawsuits.
In 2010, two Illinois homeowners said the state's education funding system discriminates against taxpayers based on where they live. That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.
In 2008, the Chicago Urban League said in a lawsuit that the state discriminates against families based on race. That lawsuit, which is pending, also cited the Illinois Civil Rights Act.
The Urban League's lawsuit was filed "on behalf of African American and Latino students enrolled in majority-minority school districts throughout the State," President and CEO Shari Runner said in a statement. It does not address the issue of pensions.
To help put together its lawsuit, the district turned to the law firm that once employed the school board's top attorney, a deal that has drawn the attention of CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.
Schuler's office had been looking into whether a $250,000 contract awarded to Jenner & Block, where CPS general counsel Ronald Marmer was formerly a partner, amounted to a breach of the school board's ethics policy. In a March 30 disclosure statement, Marmer acknowledged he receives severance payments from the firm.
Jenner & Block began billing the district for tens of thousands of dollars last year as the district explored the possibility of filing a civil rights lawsuit. Jenner & Block attorneys are listed as co-counsel for the district and its fellow plaintiffs, though Claypool on Tuesday said the firm would conduct its additional work on the case on a pro-bono basis.
Schuler has complained the district stalled his investigation of a possible ethics violation involving its top lawyer by invoking attorney-client privilege.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, at a separate news conference, said she wasn't impressed by the district's lawsuit, which she characterized as "a fake fight between Rahm and Rauner."
"So now they're figuring out that schools are funded in a discriminatory manner?" Lewis said. "How long have we had this conversation? We've been talking about this for years."
Lewis said CTU was not consulted on CPS' intent to file a lawsuit, and she questioned why the union was not offered a chance to join it.
Asked by a reporter if the union could rally around the lawsuit, Lewis paused.
"I had a bit of an eye-rolling moment there," she said with a dramatic sigh. "I'll tell you: no. They don't hold up their end of the bargain. I don't trust them. I have no trust in what they do."
Marlon Gosa, one of the CPS parents listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he's "here to do anything and whatever I need to do to get the funding for my children."
"When I talk to my principal and they tell me they have to cut this and cut that, and we can't afford this teacher, we can't afford that -- it's like, I can't stand around and do nothing. Somebody has to stand and say something," he said.
Chicago Tribune's John Byrne contributed.
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