CHICAGO – The teachers’ pension crisis clouds every aspect of the Chicago Public Schools.
The district is running enormous deficits and demanding that teachers pay more.
But teachers say they didn’t cause the problem and it’s unfair to put the burden of on them.
Tonight, one Chicago principal is speaking out on what he says is the real problem with the pension crisis.
Troy Laraviere will challenge your pre-conceived notions just as quickly as he’ll challenge powerful interests, as he showed when he burst on the scene.
He is both an administrator and an agitator, so much so he was slapped with a warning by the Board of Education.
But Laraviere doesn’t seem worried about losing his job to speak his mind.
“I worry far more about the ability of the young people coming to CPS about the knowledge and skill set that they need to get any job than I worry about me keeping one job,” he said.
His road to this job really starts with his mother — a white woman who had a baby with and a black man, in the days when that was taboo.
“She was told that, by her mother that she couldn’t bring that child into her home. So she left. She was told to give it up for adoption or leave, so she left,” he recalled.
The family bounced between Bronzeville and Back of the Yards, thinking he would never amount to much anyway, he went straight from high school to the U.S. Navy at the age of 17.
“What is it about how I grew up, what is it about my life’s experiences that led me to having such a low assessment of myself?” he asks.
He enrolled at the University of Illinois without much of a plan. But once he saw his first report card – straight A’s – he had a revelation.
“I wanted to become a teacher, so that no kid like me would come through my classroom, and not have a sense of what his or her potential,” he said.
He became the principal at Blaine Elementary, and under his leadership the school excelled.
But at the same time the students’ achievement scores were rising, the city’s budget crisis was deepening.
There were decades of underfunding the pension system, including a full 10 years when former mayor Richard M. Daley paid nothing into fund.
In an interview with WGN News, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool laid out his solution.
“The mayor said, ‘I’m willing to ask Chicago taxpayers to be part of the solution to this, but only if teachers are willing to do their part, too. That means paying a full nine percent of pensions instead of the two percent they currently pay.’”
For teachers like Jennifer Campagna, it was viewed as an assault. She says her pension is the completion of her contract, not something extra that can be taken away or changed
“What power do we have? We don’t have any money to donate to someone’s campaign,” she said.
But her principal began seeing the damage to teacher morale.
He knew – in his role – that his voice could carry farther than a teacher’s.
“At some point you have to decide whether you’re going to toe the line and be a company man, or to say what you know about what the evidence says works,” says Laraviere.
Zeroing in on the Emanuel administration – he is drawing attention to the mayor’s strategy of borrowing, which he says is only making the problems much worse.
Indeed according to a financial analysis prepared for the Board of Education, the district’s pension costs are projected to increase 32% over seven years, but the debt service on borrowed money is projected to increase 350%.
Since Mayor Emanuel began his political career, financial institutions and investment banks have contributed the most money – by far – to his campaigns.
Laraviere says they are the ones profiting, while the teachers are suffering.
“Why are these people investing so heavily in him? What is he going to give them access to when he becomes mayor? It turns out he gave them access not only to our current tax dollars, but access to billions of our future tax dollars,” he says.
The mayor denies any “quid pro quo” between his donors and the borrowing.
This month, the Emanuel administration managed to borrow $725 million by promising those investors extraordinarily high interest rates.
“I want my son to grow up in a city and become an adult in a city in which he’ll be safe and have an opportunity to thrive and grow,” said Laraviere.
He adds, “Would I ever want to run against this mayor? I want a better city. I want the city that I talked about for my son, and I’m willing to do anything I have to do to make sure he gets that city.”