Time to take the money from the banks

September 15, 2015

Chris Roche and brian bean report on a harsh austerity budget for Chicago Public Schools and the protests against Mayor Rahm Emanuel that it has provoked.

HARSH BUDGET cuts that attack Chicago public school teachers and their students but leave bankers' profits intact are helping to spark protests aimed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board.

On August 26, some 150 angry Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members and their supporters turned out in front of Chicago Public School (CPS) headquarters to picket the Board of Education budget meeting. The purpose of the closed-door meeting was to discuss what CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, called "a fantasy budget" that leaves students and teachers shortchanged while bankers and hedge fund managers reap record profits off the backs of working people.

City officials are blaming the school budget crisis on financial mismanagement, and often on teachers themselves, but this is far from the case, as the picketers outside made clear. Part of the so-called budget crisis is a result of the city not paying into teachers' pensions funds for decades, only to feign shock when there was a looming budget shortfall.

Chicago teachers, parents and students picket outside a Board of Education meeting
Chicago teachers, parents and students picket outside a Board of Education meeting (Bob Simpson | SW)

Sharkey told protesters:

The task at hand is to collect a promissory note, is to collect an IOU, is to collect a bill that is past due, a bill, which, for 20 years, has been accumulating in which the people who run this system have built schools, have shortchanged pension funds, and--let's be clear--have most of all, shortchanged students...

This is a system that refuses to acknowledge they need to tax the rich to fund our schools. This is a system that makes good deals for bankers and real estate developers and made arrangements to privatized schools.

After hearing from hunger strikers from Dyett High School--parents, teachers and community members who are fighting to save their neighborhood school on the South Side--the demonstration turned its attention to Bank of America located around the corner from CPS headquarters.

There, CTU members attempted to enter the bank and collect a check for $274 million--the amount the financial institution has made from selling toxic swaps to CPS, the city and the state--all while CPS officials continue to insist they have no money to fund schools and critical programs.

During the picket, many teachers pointed out that there is no crisis of profitability in the city. Saucedo Scholastic Academy teacher Sarah Chambers put it succinctly, "The people who are not suffering are the bankers and the hedge fund managers!"

PROFITS ARE up for places like Bank of America, and the only people suffering under this orchestrated budget crises are educators and students. The cuts, upwards of $200 million, proposed by Rahm and his unelected school board are going to put an already cash strapped school system in an even more precarious situation.

These massive cuts impact our city's most vulnerable, placing huge strains on critical special education programs and disproportionately effecting communities of color.

The cuts are part of a manufactured crisis that has led CPS to be broke--on purpose. Willfully refusing to not pay into teachers pensions while using the pensions like a credit card by deferring payment and running up debt with toxic financial deals is the backdrop to the city's current budget crisis.

Instead of tapping the many revenue sources that are available to the city via TIF overhaul, a "LaSalle Street" transaction task (a tax on buyers and sellers of futures, futures options and securities option contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Options Exchange) or pursuing progressive income and property taxation, city officials have instead borrowed more money to pay off the banks that bear responsibility for the situation. Emanuel is insisting that CPS teachers, parents and students pay for the city's malfeasance through layoffs, pay cuts and the continued evisceration of the services.

Despite the protests outside, Rahm's unelected appointed CPS board approved this budget on August 26. And although they lessened some of the catastrophic cuts to special education in the schools, the effect of the budget will mean 1,500 layoffs and cuts in sports, bus routes and much more.

The situation could get much worse, as there is still a $480 million hole left in the budget. Rahm plans to ask the state government in Springfield--helmed by billionaire budget-cutting Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner--to help pay for the budget gap. By requesting additional funds for pension spending from an avowed anti-union politician like Rauner, Emanuel is calculating that he can convince the CTU to agree to a "grand bargain" in which they agree to accept a 7 percent pay cut in order to lobby Springfield for the pension bailout.

There is no exit from this budget crisis asides from resolutions that tax the rich. The cobbled-together stop-gap measures that the Emanuel administration is using to administer austerity won't fix the situation for Chicago workers. Rather they will cause greater injury to an already wounded system.

AFTER CPS approved the budget, Rahm embarked on a three-day public listening tour about the budget in different neighborhoods of the city. This is the first time since his first year in office that he has deigned to climb down out of city hall and be part of public forums. He was met with the anger and scorn of the normal Chicago workers who are sick of austerity.

On August 31 at Malcolm X College, Mayor 1 Percent he was constantly interrupted with chants of "Save Dyett" and demands that he meet with the Dyett hunger strikers. When Emanuel attempted to put off the issue to another time, teachers, parents and community members chanted, demanding that he "Answer now!" This won a meeting with the Dyett strikers after the forum.

Two days later, a meeting at South Shore Cultural Center was similarly raucous. The packed auditorium was filled to capacity 40 minutes before start time, and an overflow room with a live feed was also standing room only. Like the meeting at Malcolm X College, attendees demanded that the mayor address Dyett and the fact that the city was "broke on purpose."

These teachers, parents and community members have been steeled in past fights for CTU and against school closures and saw through the charade of Rahm's budget and the forum itself. As speaker after speaker railed at the mayor for his cuts, he mostly ignored them and refused to respond.

When elementary teach Nick Limbeck asked him if Emanuel would consider "taxing the rich," Rahm made one of his only responses of the evening, replying that he had done this already by ending subsidies on luxury skyboxes. Whether he is actually that out-of-touch or considered that a joke is uncertain.

Understanding that the mayor wasn't actually "listening" on his listening tour, protesters stormed the stage and took over the meeting with chants of "Save Dyett" and "Shut it down." Rahm first hid behind a curtain before he was quickly ushered out by police superintendent Garry McCarthy.

During this series of recent public protests, Chicagoans are making it clear that this isn't a crisis of profitability--the money is there. As the new school year begins, this fight will heat up, as Chicago educators and their allies take on Emanuel's austerity budget with the demand "Tax the Rich."

As CTU protesters demanded at the board meeting, "School cuts, no thanks! Take the money from the banks!"

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