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Inside the Hyatt Hotel, protestors fight against businesses receiving tax dollars while schools are in need of funds.

CTU targets business executives as protests over school closures escalate

by Heather Momyer
Nov 13, 2012

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CTU posters riff off the Trix cereal slogan after the Hyatt benefited from $5.5 million in TIF money.

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Marchers leave Cityfront Plaza to begin the trek down Michigan Avenue.

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Protesters march down Michigan Avenue into the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile hotel.

The Chicago Teachers Union is broadening its fight against school closures to include high-profile businesses and their executives.

On Veterans Day, the CTU targeted the Hyatt Hotel and Hyatt board member Penny Pritzker, who also serves on the Chicago Board of Education. The hotel chain was co-founded by Penny Pritzker’s father. The Hyatt benefitted from millions of tax dollars set aside for economic development, known as Tax Increment Financing, for its new Hyde Park hotel.
Protesters opposed to the potential closure of more than 100 neighborhood schools, mostly in South Side and West Side neighborhoods, marched from Cityfront Plaza into the lobby of the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile, chanting, “We need teachers; we need books; we need the money Pritzker took.”

“We’re here to serve notice to the appointed board that if you close our schools, we are coming after you,” Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the CTU, said. “We’re here to serve notice to the billionaires … that if you come after our schools, we will expose you. And we are here to serve notice to the elected officials that if you close our schools, there will be no peace in this city.”

TIFs were designed to promote economic development in dilapidated Chicago districts. Budgets funded by property taxes are frozen for a 23-year period. As property values go up in that time, the excess raised in taxes is meant “to build and repair roads and infrastructure, clean polluted land and put vacant properties back to productive use, usually in conjunction with private development projects,” according to the city of Chicago website.

This is controversial because city services that are funded by property taxes, education for example, don’t benefit from the new property values and taxes. Schools operate on their regular pre-TIF funding.

The mayor’s office did not respond to questions on the CTU’s complaints.

Representatives from the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile hotel also did not respond to requests for comment.

But Stephanie Farmer of CReATE, Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education, and assistant professor of sociology at Roosevelt said it’s not so simple.

“People think TIFs take money away from schools,” Farmer said. “That’s not true.”

When taxes are frozen in a TIF district, the school board might have to increase property taxes in the rest of the city to be sure they get their allotted funding, Farmer said. Taxes go up and schools get the same amount of money.

But while schools can’t get TIF money for operational budgets, they can get it for construction to build neighborhood schools, selective-enrollment public schools or private charter schools.

Farmer argued in a research report for CReATE that neighborhood schools don’t get their fair share of TIF funding.

“Although 69% of all Chicago Public Schools are neighborhood attendance area schools, they received 48% of all TIF funds, or a third less than what would be expected if the allocation of TIF revenues were proportionate,” Farmer writes, saying schools with selective admissions processes are prioritized.

The CTU’s broader argument is that tax funding is improperly being diverted to private corporations rather than the public good, whether it is going to corporations like Hyatt or privately run charter schools.

While proponents of charter schools argue private schools offer parents a wider-range of choices while the market provides its own checks and balances for quality, opponents argue the loss of public education could lead to further racial and economic segregation as the more expensive and elite private schools remain elusive to families with less income.

The fight over charter schools is entwined with the CTU’s opposition to closing neighborhood schools.

“After years of telling us that the schools are being closed on the basis of performance,” Sharkey said, “now we find, after eight years of closures and eight different sets of policies, they now tell us that they are going to close schools not on the basis of performance, but simply on the basis on how few students go to the schools.”

How can you close schools due to lack of enrollment, and then open new charter schools, Sharkey asked.

“It doesn’t make any sense. Unless really you understand what’s happening here is a conscious policy of school privatization,” he said.

New Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is seeking state legislation to allow the district to postpone a decision on which schools are being considered for closure. Under current law the board has to announce the list by Dec. 1, but Byrd-Bennett has said she needs more time to gather community input.

“We all have the same goal,” said CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus in a statement. “And that is to provide our children in every neighborhood with the high-quality education they deserve.”

“CEO Byrd-Bennett has acknowledged that the trust the community has with CPS is broken,” Sainvilus said, “and that is why she is seeking an extension on school actions from the state legislature so that the newly created Commission on School Utilization can have the time needed to engage with the community.”