Inattention to law spares schools from ’20th day’ cuts

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Last summer, School Board officials tried to solve a problem that has plagued Chicago schools for decades: the disruption of classes when central office yanks “excess” teaching positions from schools after the school year has begun.

Officials took a number of steps to improve their predictions of how many kids would show up at each school, and they set aside a $7 million dollar cushion to cover any mistakes.

As it turned out, they were off by some 461 positions, which amounted to an $18.4 million mistake. Even so, the total represents progress: in September 1994, the board closed 574 excess positions; in September 1993, it closed 796. (Staff could not immediately supply numbers for 1995.)

Only a procedural snafu spared most overstaffed schools from losing faculty. Board officials now say they don’t know what they’ll do next year.

“If someone could show me how to solve this problem, they’d be worth gold to me,” says Budget Director Christine Hoagland.

About face

Last June, David Agazzi, Hoagland’s predecessor, confidently predicted that mid-year staff cuts would be a thing of the past. “I just don’t know why in the past they did this,” he told Substance newspaper.

However, when faced with a much stiffer price than they had counted on, school officials decided some excess positions would have to go. In late October, Hoagland sent a memo to principals asking them to trim their board-financed staffs to “within one position” of their school’s entitlement. They could do this by cutting positions or by shifting them to categorical funds such as state Chapter 1. Or they could request a waiver. Hoagland set a deadline of Nov. 21.

However, the School Reform Act bars Chicago from making such teacher cuts after the 20th day of school, which was Sept. 30. The Act provides one exception: high schools may be restaffed at the semester break.

At the November School Board meeting, school reform advocates scolded trustees for breaking their word about minimizing disruptions and for breaking the law.

“It is so frustrating to have to keep coming down here to point out to you that you are breaking the law,” said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education. “Your credibility suffers when you continue to promote your good policies with great fanfare, then try to reverse them out of the limelight.”

“Please show our kids that you can fulfill your responsibilities and follow the law at the same time,” said Zarina O’Hagin, executive director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project.

O’Hagin was surprised by School Board President Gery Chico’s response. He thanked her. (“Usually, they have no compunctions about slamming me to pieces,” she says.) Chico then asked for a copy of Hoagland’s late-October memo to principals, took off his glasses to read it, exchanged whispers with School Board Chief Attorney Marilyn Johnson, and thanked O’Hagin again. “We’ll take a good look at this,” he promised.

Two days later, Hoagland sent word to principals that no elementary schools would lose teachers. High schools, however, stood to lose up to 185 at semester break, which will reap up to $3.7 million in savings. The bottom line is that the board will shell out about $7.7 million more for overstaffing than it had planned to.

A memo from Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas followed Hoagland’s message a few days later; in it, Vallas says that elementary schools would get to keep their staff because of “uncertainty” among principals about what the board had wanted.

“The early enrollment initiative was never intended as a blank check for schools to carry and fund more positions than their enrollment warranted,” the memo said, in part. “Unfortunately, many schools have informed us that they interpreted our directives to mean that staff counts could remain constant after the 20th day of the school year, regardless of enrollment.”

O’Hagin views the memo as “less than honest” in its tone; Vallas, she says, seems to accuse principals of trying to pull a fast one even though the law is on their side.

“We certainly weren’t trying to break the law,” says Hoagland.

According to board attorney Johnson, Vallas and his staff neglected to consult the Law Department along the way. Her department, she adds, has “been part of the conversation” since late November.

Johnson says the law “is pretty clear” about preventing cuts in elementary schools after the 20th day.

Here’s what the law says: “There shall be no reduction in teachers because of a decrease in student membership or a change in subject requirements … after the 20th day following the first day of the school year.”

Meanwhile, some teachers and kids got caught in the switches. The e-mail telling principals they could keep their positions came the day after the Nov. 21 deadline Hoagland had set for making the cuts. By that time, some schools— Hoagland can’t say how many or which ones—had made staff changes.

For example, John Mazurek, principal of Pablo Casals Elementary, had shifted two board-funded teachers to local discretionary funds and tapped a teacher intern to save a third position. When he got the notice rescinding the cut order, he says, “I felt like a jerk.”

Mazurek says he won’t try to get the positions reinstated. “I’m not saying we deserved the teachers; after all, we were overstaffed,” he says, explaining that the school’s enrollment dropped unexpectedly by about 70 students this year.

Principals from 168 of 201 overstaffed schools had applied for waivers, says Hoagland.

Used to be worse

Until the Chicago School Reform Act was passed in 1988, the School Board cut teachers throughout the school year as enrollment declined. Further, seniority rules allowed “cut” teachers to “bump” less senior teachers, setting off a game of musical chairs that disrupted the education of thousands of children. The Reform Act ended seniority-based bumping, as well.

For each of the next seven years, initial staffing at each school was based on its enrollment from the previous June; on the 20th day, the board would cut or add teacher positions to bring the school in line with its late-September enrollment.

Two years ago, Carlos Azcoitia, then newly installed as head of the board’s Reform Office, started pushing for improvements. He urged the board to get kids registered earlier, to wait longer to make enrollment and staffing projections, and to give schools a little flexibility—sparing, for example, those that were just shy of having enough kids to warrant keeping a classroom teacher.

Last year, the Reform Board adopted Azcoitia’s proposals and went several steps further:

Parents were urged to register their kids for school by June 21, instead of at the end of the summer. Hoagland says that 85 percent of students were signed up before school started.

Hoagland’s staff consulted enrollment projections created by the Chicago Geographic Information Study, an arm of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

They also gave school principals a role in developing projections for their schools. Final projections were based on mid-year enrollment from the previous year, the number of kids who enrolled in June, the university study, and the principal’s input, according to Hoagland.

Finally, the budget office set aside the $7 million, which Hoagland says would cover about 200 “over-entitled” teachers.