Just when the public has finally begun to show signs of seeing through the fog that surrounds tax increment financing, the state has floated the idea of a rigging up a new kind of TIF. When Sam Zell bought the Tribune Company, vowing to break it up and sell off the pieces, one of the most valuable pieces was the Cubs, Wrigley Field included. In January former governor Jim Thompson, chair of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, revealed that Zell had come to him and Governor Blagojevich with a proposal to have the state buy Wrigley and use public money to pay for its makeover.
Initially Mayor Daley resisted the idea, pointing out that the Wrigley Field is a cash cow, with sellouts guaranteed even in seasons when the Cubs lose game after game. There was no reason to draw on public funds to help pay for its upkeep, he said.
But in the last few months the mayor seems to have softened his stance against the handout. And now Thompson has gotten more specific about how ISFA would swing the deal. As the Sun-Times reported February 26, Thompson and the Tribune Company would require that the city relax its landmark designation of Wrigley to allow for extensive renovations. More alarming, they’re plugging for a TIF on sales taxes. “It’s a new idea but I haven’t seen any details,” says alderman Tom Tunney. “I have not been in any of the conservation.”
Under the plan, the state would issue bonds to pay for rebuilding Wrigley, adding new skyboxes and club seats and constructing the parking garage and retail operation the Tribune Company had planned to build. Here’s the tricky part: sales taxes going to the city would be frozen and any increase in revenues spurred by the renovation would go to the state to repay its loans. “The city would have to give up their share of the sales tax increment for the next 30 years,” Thompson said.
Clearly the state’s trying to bamboozle the public—it’s a variation on the spin the city puts on conventional TIFs, which freeze property tax revenues going into the pool for schools and parks and the like, sending increases to a discretionary fund controlled by the mayor. Just watch: Thompson will try to tell you that a sales tax increment doesn’t do any harm, the renovation will pay for itself.
Don’t let ’em fool you. Tax dollars spent to refurbish Wrigley are dollars that can’t be spent anywhere else. The needs of institutions like the schools and parks will have to be offset by service cuts or other tax hikes. As Zell likes to tell his employees, there’s no such thing as free lunch.
Classes in Chaos
Back in the fall of 1993, I visited Lake View High School to talk to students and teachers about how the Board of Education’s central office had made a royal mess out of their school year. Faced with a multimillion-dollar deficit, the board had cut its budget by lengthening high school classes from 40 to 50 minutes. Fewer classes meant fewer teachers on the payroll and money saved.
The result was chaos in schools across the city, as the board ordered the dismissal of hundreds of teachers and then, with principals scrambling to fill vacancies, moved others from school to school. Weeks into the school year students still didn’t know what classes they were taking or who would be teaching them. The central office had sent a favorite art teacher at Lake View to Prosser, a vocational school with no art program. One student’s schedule had changed five times in two weeks. “I had wanted to take African-American history,” she said. “But they moved me to psychology because they couldn’t fit history into my schedule. I already took psychology. It doesn’t make any sense.”
But that was in the bad old days, two years before Mayor Daley took control of the school system in the great reform of 1995. That could never happen today, right?
Wrong. Just ask Kellina Mojica, Shamone Shelton, Ashley Washington, and Megan Maybell, sophomores at Julian High School, at 103rd and Elizabeth on the far south side. Since the school year started, their math, history, and English teachers have been replaced multiple times as Julian has struggled to accommodate budget-cutting mandates from the board.
I met these students when they attended a meeting at the Board of Ed’s central office at 125 S. Clark as part of a teacher-supervised field trip on February 28. They and many others were there to protest the board’s proposal to close or consolidate 18 schools in the system. Julian doesn’t face closure, but it’s losing teachers. Attendance there fell from roughly 1,900 last year to 1,600 this year, and high schools are allotted about one teacher for every 25 students, so in October the board ordered that 12 teachers be cut from the staff.
Some classes at Julian were left without teachers. Students sat in assembly or unsupervised classrooms while school officials figured out how to consolidate courses. Then the shuffle began. “First I had Ms. Turner for U.S. history,” says Mojica. “She left in the middle of October when they got rid of the teachers and we got a new teacher.”
Under Ms. Turner, the class had made its way from the American Revolution into the 1800s, Mojica says. But with the new teacher, they went back to the revolution— eight kids had been added to the class, and he wanted to make sure they were all on the same page. “We didn’t learn a lot of new things,” says Mojica.
It was even more chaotic in geometry, where substitute teachers were brought in while school officials juggled schedules. Mojica’s first geometry teacher got transferred to another class, so Mojica got a substitute who didn’t know much about math—”he told us it wasn’t his specialty,” she says. Then that substitute left and was replaced by another one—”At least she knew math,” says Mojica. But then that teacher left, and now she has a fourth. “I haven’t really learned a lot of geometry,” Mojica says. “It’s hard to learn anything when they keep changing your teachers.”
The students suspect that one factor in the drop in enrollment was the death of Blair Holt, a 16-year-old junior who along with four other Julian students was shot while riding a CTA bus home from school last May. “A lot of parents don’t think Julian’s safe anymore, even though Blair wasn’t shot at the school,” says Maybell. “It’s been a tough year.”
At last week’s meeting dozens of speakers pleaded with the board to save their schools. There wasn’t enough time to accommodate everyone who wanted to talk, and the Julian students never got a chance to testify. When the hearing was over, the board unanimously voted to proceed with the closings. “Change is hard, I understand that,” said board president Rufus Williams. “But we got to get better and get better right now.”
According to Williams and schools CEO Arne Duncan, the system can’t afford to keep underused schools open or overlook strict enforcement of its teacher-to-student ratio. Of course, there’s no need for the schools to be so broke: CPS forfeits roughly $300 million a year in property taxes to Mayor Daley’s tax increment financing program. I’m still looking for board members to be as tough with the mayor as they are with parents, teachers, and students. Just once I’d like to hear a school official tell the mayor, “We know change is hard to take, but we need that TIF money to educate our students.”
Williams and Duncan promised to make the consolidation and closings efficient so education would not be disrupted as it has been at Julian. Good luck. As was the case 15 years ago, it’s a big, impersonal system whose leaders tend to look the other way when their budget-saving mandates create havoc in the classroom. Some things never change.v
For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.