This city's school system was said today to be suffering from a New York City syndrome of fiscal woes, unable to meet its upcoming payroll and pay off $89 million in short-term notes that fall due in 10 days.
The unexpected financial crisis emerged last week after both Moody's and Standard & Poors municipal bond evaluators, dramatically lowered theirir appraisals of the school system's credit worthiness.
On Tuesday, the eve of a scheduled sale of $124.6 million in new notes, Moody's slashed the credit rating to its lowest possible level. The next day the school board found it had no takers for the notes. Standard & Poors, following suit Friday, dropped the school board's rating on general obligation long-term bonds two grades, from minus-A to BB.
School chief Joseph Hannon conceded that he could not assure teachers they would receive regular paychecks in December after the board pays off the short-term notes that fall due Monday.
But paying off the notes was the first priority, Hannon said. "The integrity of the school board in never having defaulted is very important," Hannon told a special school board meeting Friday.
Asked by a board member whether he could assure the system's 50,000 employes thatthey would be paid on schedule, Hannon would say only. "I hope so."
The board's inability to market its notes triggered a series of late-night City Hall meetings between Hannon, Donald Haider, Mayor Jane Byrne's budget officer, and representatives of the city's two major banks, First National and Continental Illinois.
But the bankers told the city that they, won't help the school board get out from under unless the city or the state guarantees repayment of the notes. The city, confronting fiscal difficulties of its own, was reluctant to bail out the school system. And Gov. Jim Thompson, after a meeting with school officials today, offered no immediate state aid.
The crunch came when school officials, finding themselves short of cash last summer to pay their bills because of slowed tax collections, borrowed about $43 million of the funds set asid e to cover the notes now coming due.
Although the school board and the city are separate taxing entities, Haider, the city's budget director, feared that a default by the schools could adversely affect the city's already weakened credit rating. "We're damned if we do (help out the school board) and damned if we don't," he said.
Government-backed loans from either the city or state were but two of the five options under discussion. Others included a bailout request to the managers of the teachers union pension fund; a request for an advance of school aid due from the state in December; or negotiations for new terms that would ease the relluctance of bankers to buy the notes.