Learning to Say No | Politics | Chicago Reader

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Learning to Say No

Mayor Daley's (mis)use of tax increment financing to pay for school construction inspires a minirevolt in City Council

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After the meeting Huberman's aides approached Dowell to talk things over, and when the letter came up, "They said they never received it," she says. But they assured her they would look for alternative ways to fund school construction in her ward.

Huberman didn't let himself get drawn into an argument with Schulter or Burnett, though I wish he would have. After all, the TIF program is a loser for the schoolchildren of Chicago. Roughly half the new tax revenue that flows into TIF districts would otherwise have gone to the schools. In essence CPS is giving up at least $250 million a year and then, to compensate, raising taxes, cutting programs for students, and begging Daley to give some of the money back. For example, from 2007 through 2013 about $1.5 billion in property tax money that would have gone to the schools will instead be diverted into TIF accounts. Through the Modern Schools program, the mayor has promised to spend about $600 million on school construction and rehab. In short, they give him a dime and he gives them a nickel. Only a chump would consider this a good deal.

As I've been telling school officials for years, they'd be better off without the TIFs. They could finance their own construction with taxes they raise directly and maybe have enough money left over to avoid cutting teachers or sports programs.

But Huberman, like his predecessors Arne Duncan and Paul Vallas, is much too loyal to the mayor to say so. Guess that's why Mayor Daley gave him a big raise when he moved him to the schools from the CTA.

Dowell kept up the fight even after the finance committee meeting—she pressed her aldermanic colleagues to send a message to the mayor about TIF porting and vote against the Modern Schools legislation on the 12th. But as usual, most aldermen voted with the mayor. The measure passed 36-10, though by City Council standards that's a real statement.

For the record, the aldermen who dared to join Dowell were Robert Fioretti (Second Ward), Joann Thompson (16th), Rick Munoz (22nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Brian Doherty (41st), Brendan Reilly (42nd), Vi Daley (43rd), Tom Tunney (44th), and Joe Moore (49th).

Dowell and Waguespack considered deferring and publishing the Modern School measure—a parliamentary maneuver by which two aldermen can block a vote until the next council meeting. "But the administration urged us not to because they said it would affect school funding," says Dowell. "And since we didn't have the votes to defeat the proposal I didn't see the point."

"Pat did a lot of lobbying," says Fioretti. "My no vote was against the way schools are funded. We need to look overall at tall the issue of funding of schools throughout the city of Chicago."

In short, Fioretti would like the council to consider ending the use of TIF funds for school construction and letting CPS keep more property tax money to finance its own construction programs. Of course that would diminish Mayor Daley's control over the schools. In other words, it would be a TIF reform proposal well worth the fight.   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.

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