Cook County Record

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Judge dismisses CPS suit vs IL over schools funding; says demands would 'inject chaos,' not fix problem

By Jonathan Bilyk | Apr 29, 2017

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Saying the demands sought by the Chicago Public Schools “would inject widespread chaos into the entirety of the State’s public education system,” a Cook County judge has denied the request by CPS and other plaintiffs to force the state to funnel more money into Chicago’s public education system, dismissing a lawsuit CPS said it brought to address systemic and illegal discrimination within the state of Illinois’ educational funding system.

“The Court is not oblivious to the fiscal challenges confronting CPS,” wrote Cook County Circuit Judge Franklin Valderrama in his April 28 opinion. “To say the State’s current scheme of funding public education is broken is to state the obvious. Plaintiffs’ Complaint, however, as constituted is not the vehicle to redress this inequity.”

The decision came about two months since CPS and a group of five parents of CPS filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging the state has created a funding imbalance, in part, by requiring CPS to divert money from education to fund teacher pensions, while placing no similar demands on the state’s other school districts.

The suit specifically alleged the city’s schools, which house large numbers of the state’s African-American and Hispanic students, “suffer from stark educational inequalities” when compared to Illinois’ other school districts, most of which are majority white.

The lawsuit noted 42 percent of all black students in the state attend Chicago public schools, as well as 34 percent of the state’s Hispanic public school students. The complaint noted 9-in-10 CPS students are students of color.

The complaint said Illinois spends 74 cents on Chicago students for every $1 spent on public education outside the city, creating a disparate impact negatively affecting CPS’ largely racial minority student body.

The lawsuit attributed those impacts largely to the demands placed upon CPS to fund its own teacher pensions – a demand placed on no other school district in the state.

The lawsuit, which was filed in February, named as defendants Ill. Gov. Bruce Rauner; the Illinois State Board of Education and its chairman, the Rev. James T. Meeks; Comptroller Susan Mendoza; and state schools Superintendent Tony Smith.

It followed Rauner’s veto of state legislation in December, which would have allocated $215 million to CPS to help it avoid a shortfall in its budget, and help the district make its required $721 million payment into its teacher pension funds for 2016. In contrast, the lawsuit, noted, the state paid $4 billion in 2016 to the state Teacher Retirement System, which manages the pensions for teachers in Illinois’ school districts outside Chicago.

The alleged disparate impact was exacerbated by the need to furlough teachers and staff, freeze half of non-personnel spending and eliminate professional development programs for teachers, to help close the budget hole and meet the pension obligations for retired teachers.

The complaint said the state’s actions violated the 2003 Illinois Civil Rights Act.

The plaintiffs followed the lawsuit with a motion, asking the court to impose a preliminary injunction, forbidding the state from funding any educational system anywhere in Illinois until it creates a system that “does not discriminate” against CPS and its students.

The state defendants responded by asking the judge to deny the injunction and dismiss the injunction, arguing the demands would inflict harm on all of the state’s other school districts, and effectively place the court in the position of overturning the governor’s veto and usurping the state government’s power to set educational funding levels.

Judge Valderrama said he sympathized with CPS’ position, and particularly its poor financial condition.

But the judge said the injunction request was improper, as it would not merely preserve “the status quo,” as the law requires injunctions must do, but would rather “seek to alter it in dramatic fashion” – all while doing nothing to actually help CPS fix its financial problems.

“Plaintiffs appear to be proceeding on the theory that as a result of a court ordered preliminary injunction prohibiting Defendants from distributing funds to any public school or teacher pension fund statewide, the General Assembly and the Governor would have no choice but to enact legislation that alleviates CPS’s dire financial condition and otherwise appeases the Plaintiffs,” the judge wrote.

In addressing the state defendants’ dismissal request, Valderrama brushed aside the state’s attempts to argue it should be considered immune under state law from the suit, or that CPS and the other plaintiffs had no standing to sue.

However, the judge said the state’s arguments hold serve on the question of whether CPS and its co-plaintiffs had actually stated a valid claim under state law, saying they failed to link discrimination claims to the state’s differing teacher pension funding requirements.

“At bottom, the Complaint is, in effect, a challenge to the Pension Code,” the judge said. “The Complaint is not a challenge to the method by which the Pension Code is administered or applied. Thus, Plaintiffs fail to allege facts to sustain a cause of action under … (the) ICRA.”

Judge Valderrama gave CPS and its co-plaintiffs until May 26 to file an amended complaint.

Plaintiffs were represented in the action by attorneys from the firm of Jenner & Block, of Chicago.

The Illinois state defendants were represented by the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois State Board of EducationIllinois State ComptrollerJenner & Block LLPIllinois Governor Bruce RaunerChicago Public SchoolsIllinois Attorney GeneralCity of Chicago