District sets aside extra funds as safety net for wealthier schools

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An obscure CPS funding program that fattens lean discretionary budgets at schools with the fewest poor students will pay out $2.5 million to those schools next year.

The so-called minimum funding program is a financial safety net for schools that are eligible for some—but not much—poverty money because they enroll more students from middle-income families.

It guarantees a supplemental funding floor that ranges from $50,000 for schools enrolling up to 200 students to $200,000 for those with enrollment over 500.

The minimum funding program, which is financed by local tax dollars, survived the chopping block in this spring’s tight budget climate that is forcing principals to cut classroom staff and district leaders to hold off scheduled facility repairs.

Tapping local tax revenue may put the district on shaky legal ground, says one school reformer. “The state law says every school is supposed to get a fair share of the local funds,” explains Donald Moore of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change. “There shouldn’t be any special considerations.”

Still, principals who get the money maintain that it gives them financial flexibility where there would otherwise be none.

“The minimum funding money is crucial to the schools that get it,” says Principal Robert Guercio of Bell Elementary. The North Center school got $42,000 from the minimum funding program this year to shore up its $158,000 state poverty fund grant. “It’s ridiculous for the board to come back to me every time they cut something and say, ‘Buy it out of your discretionary money.'”

Bell, where 30 percent of students are low-income, spent its extra money on library books, maps and globes, school aides and partial support for a sign language instructor.

Principal Maureen Connolly of Kellogg Elementary in Beverly concedes “the school is in an affluent area, but we still have to educate the kids.” Kellogg used its $39,000 from minimum funding to pay for a teacher aide and to buy updated core subject materials.

‘Watered down’ poverty funds

Minimum funding was created in 1998 in response to complaints from a coalition of Northwest Side schools that they were being penalized for posting better test scores. As test scores rose, more neighborhood kids from middle-income families had enrolled and had displaced the bused-in, low-income students who helped the schools qualify for poverty funds.

Eager to keep middle-income families satisfied with the public schools, district leaders then earmarked $1.5 million to beef up the schools’ dwindling discretionary budgets. This year, the districtwide budget for minimum funding was $3.5 million. CPS Budget Director Pedro Martinez says schools did not get that much because an unexpected bump in charter school enrollment forced a late shift of $1 million to cover charter school costs.

This year, close to $391 million in poverty funding went to 617 schools. About 80 percent of schools are getting $300,000 or more, and Kelly High School, with more than 2,500 low income students, is at the top of the chart with $2.6 million.

Though minimum funding is a drop in the bucket, one school finance expert notes that the program dilutes the intent of supplemental poverty money, which is to compensate schools for the additional expenses they incur serving poor students. “The whole idea of discretionary funding has been so watered down,” says G. Alfred Hess, who wrote the portion of the 1988 state school reform law that addressed poverty funding reform. “It’s no wonder there’s no compensatory effects left.”

In the past, schools may not have gotten all of the minimum funding dollars the district promised, says Patricia Wells, principal at Franklin Elementary in Near North Side. However, when Wells received budget allocations for next year, she noted that minimum funding dollars had already been loaded in, a sign that it would not be taken away later.

“I get the feeling the budget office is really listening to us,” says Wells.

Moore from Designs for Change suggests another way the district can beef up funding for every school: Cutting back on the money it budgets centrally for citywide programs and putting it directly into schools’ budgets. The windfall, says Moore, would give schools like Bell, Kellogg and Franklin more wiggle room.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.