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Chicago schools order unpaid days off after governor's funding veto

By Dave McKinney

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago’s cash-strapped public school system ordered its teachers and administrators on Friday to take four unpaid days off to offset state funding withheld by Illinois' Republican governor.

The nation’s third-largest school system had been counting on a $215 million infusion of state funds to stabilize its pensions and had included that amount in its $5.46 billion fiscal 2017 operating budget.

The junk-rated system faces an escalating pension tab that will jump to about $720 million this fiscal year from $676 million in fiscal 2016. The school district, controlled by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also is struggling with drained reserves and debt dependency.

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In December, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed legislation containing the one-time $215 million payment that had been conditional on passage of statewide comprehensive pension reform. An overarching, statewide pension fix gained no traction in the Democratic-led state legislature.

“With a hole of this size in our budget, we have no choice but to begin to take immediate action to preserve CPS’ solvency,” schools CEO Forrest Claypool wrote in a letter released on Friday announcing the furloughs.

Unpaid days off set for Feb. 3, April 7, June 21 and June 22 for Chicago Public Schools' nearly 40,000 teachers, principals and administrators will save approximately $35 million, the district said.

Claypool raised the prospect of additional cuts, which he said would “fall squarely at the governor’s feet.”

But Rauner’s administration fired back at Claypool.

"Continuing to blame the governor, who has been in office two years, for decades of fiscal mismanagement and bad decision-making is getting old,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.“CPS willingly chose to budget for money they had not received and knew was contingent upon real pension reform.”

Kelly said the governor remains “open” to considering the $215 million allotment to CPS if state lawmakers move on a workable plan to reduce unfunded state pension liabilities of $129.8 billion.

The union representing nearly 25,000 teachers blasted the furlough announcement and blamed Emanuel and Claypool for failing to wrest more dollars from the state.

“Our students lose days of learning because the mayor and his CEO, while attempting to place the blame solely on Springfield, have been stubborn and ineffective in pushing for the resources to properly fund our schools,” the union said in a prepared statement.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)