School flurries upstage the snow in Chicago's winter of discontent

In Chicago this is becoming known, not as the winter of the big snow -- what flurries there have been so far pale in comparison to last year's record pileup -- but of the big school crisis.

School officials have been engaged in a desperate search for cash to meet teacher payrolls and other immediate expenses ever since mid-November.

It was then that the system's unusual bookkeeping practices of selling bonds and borrowing from one account to pay off bills in another and its budget shortfall -- a resulting $43 million operating deficit and more than 10 times as much total indebtedness -- first came to public attention. The discovery eventually led to the resignation of the superintendent, school board president, and two top school financial officers.

Although state, city, banking, and school officials agreed on a fragile rescue package three weeks ago, a solution to the Chicago schools' pressing cash-flow problem somehow remains almost as elusive as ever.

In the latest chapter of the continuing saga, Chicago teachers, who last week missed their third payday in a row walked off the job. They say they will not return until every penny in back pay and retroactive raises is firmly in hand. On Jan. 28 the first day of their their walkout, they gathered for a massive pep rally.

For a number of teachers, the concern goes beyond the paycheck to job security. One element of the complex rescue plan was a promised $60 million cut in this year's school budget. So far, the school board has voted only a $42 million trim -- and found it exceedingly difficult to do even that.

Chanting and clapping parents and teachers who objected to the cuts blocked the first reduction list. A second version, which slices out a greater proportion of administrative jobs -- a move preferred by most teachers -- finally did pass. But the question remains whether or not the cuts will be deep enough to satisfy financial backers of the rescue plan.

One lesson emerging loud and clear from all the attempts to find a solution to the financial difficulties here is that only a united effort by all those who have reason to care can make the package succeed.

Much of the energy of participants has been channeled into blaming others and waiting for everyone else to take the first step. The result, says Mayor Jane Byrne, a target of much of the criticism herself, is not only a financial problem but "a crisis of good faith and credibility."

One positive step that has emerged this week is the City Council's long-awaited approval of the sale of $225 million in notes to finance school operations through April.

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