Title I ‘windfall’ to be used for Bridge Program

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Elementary schools that scrambled to budget money for newly-required summer school programs are getting a reprieve: The School Reform Board has opted to use $12.5 million in unexpected federal funds to pay for and expand the programs.

Last year, as the board began putting together its 1996-97 budget, Congress was threatening to cut back federal Title I funds, so the board cut back schools’ preliminary Title I allocations by 10 percent. But Congress eventually backed off, and Chicago received roughly the same amount of money as last year, $182 million, reports Budget Director Chris Hoagland.

Board officials, however, decided to spend the “windfall” on next summer’s Bridge Program for low-achievers, one of Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas’ most high-profile projects. Next year’s program will serve up to 40,000 3rd-, 6th-, 8th-, 9th- and 10th-graders who have exceptionally low reading and math scores.

While schools will be stuck with the Title I cuts, they won’t have to use their state Chapter 1 funds for the 3rd- and 6th-grade programs, as they initially had been told. “We think it will be a wash,” says Hoagland. Principals have been enthusiastic about the program, but many had complained about being forced to cut spending in other areas to help foot the bill for next summer. (See Catalyst, June 1996.)

The board launched the summer programs this year, spending about $3 million of its regular operating funds on classes for some 7,000 8th-graders. The board had told schools it would continue to pay for the 8th-grade program out of the regular budget.

Karen Berman of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a group that has been monitoring Chicago’s use of Title I funds, questions the board’s decision. Federal guidelines require school boards to consult with parents and teachers before deciding how to use money that isn’t allocated to schools, Berman points out. Still, she adds, principals and local school council members haven’t complained about the move and believe summer programs are a good idea.

The $12.5 million does not cover the entire cost of the two-month summer program. But because the Legislature changed the dates of the board’s fiscal year—making it end June 30 instead of Aug. 31—only half the cost is included in this year’s budget (see below). Next year, the board plans to use Title I funds again for the Bridge Program, Hoagland says, but schools may be asked to pick up a small part of the cost.

Following are other highlights from the board’s 1996-97 budget.

TAX INCREASE After earning widespread praise last year for balancing the budget and crafting a four-year financial plan, the Reform Board said it was “reluctantly” forced to raise property taxes this year. Taxes will rise by $48.8 million over the next two years, an increase of 4 percent that will cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $37.40 per year.

Previous boards have raised taxes every year since 1983; the largest increase was in 1989, when taxes rose by $134 million, a 22 percent increase over 1988.

FISCAL YEAR CHANGE Last spring, lawmakers switched the school system’s fiscal year, which had run from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31, so that it coincides with the state’s fiscal year, July 1 through June 31. As a result, the board’s current fiscal year will last only 10 months.

MORE STATE GRANTS The board will receive $10 million more in block grants from the state, for a total of $264 million. (For an explanation of block grants, see CATALYST, September 1995.) The board also reaped another $10.5 million in funds from a new statewide grant program that aims to improve school safety and teacher training, upgrade textbooks and provide other remedial programs.

MORE PBC SCHOOLS The remaining 130 school buildings not under the control of the Public Building Commission will be transferred to PBC jurisdiction this year; the move “allows us the ability to use PBC funds on more schools,” Hoagland says, thus lifting some of the burden off the board’s regular operating budget. (PBC funds are raised by a separate local tax levy.) The PBC will transfer $26.8 million this year to the board’s regular budget to help cover operating costs for the 130 schools.

STATE CHAPTER 1 Schools’ share of state Chapter 1 funds will remain at $261 million, the level for the past two years. Because the number of poor students in the system has increased, the per-pupil allocation will drop slightly—from $758 per low-income pupil to $752. Chicago’s total state Chapter 1 allocation remains constant at $286 million, Hoagland says.

MORE PRESCHOOLS The board will spend $10 million to open 150 new preschool classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds; with a maximum of 20 children per class and two classes a day, an additional 6,000 children would be served. The board will continue to foot the entire bill for preschools; last year, officials considered requiring schools to pay for classroom aides as a way to free up money to open more programs.

Meanwhile, a “handful” of non-classroom support staff lost their jobs, says Hoagland. Last year, 81 employees who screened children were laid off, and the board used a $3 million increase in state prekindergarten funds to help balance the budget. (See Catalyst, October 1995.)

Vallas also has said he wants to open child-care centers in high schools as a way to keep teen mothers in school, but, as yet, no money has been budgeted for that project, Hoagland says.

PARENT TEACHERS FOR TODDLERS In another ambitious effort, the administration plans to spend $1.5 million to train 500 public-aid parents to tutor 3- and 4-year-olds and serve as mentors to their parents.

Modeled after the highly regarded HIPPY program (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters), the children will be taught school readiness skills, such as how to recognize colors and shapes, and their parents will be taught ways to promote their children’s learning. (For more on HIPPY, see Catalyst, October 1995.) The families will be selected from those on waiting lists for Head Start and state prekindergarten programs.

Each parent tutor-mentor will be assigned to three homes and, starting in September, make weekly, hour-long visits for 39 weeks. Tutor-mentors will make $6 an hour. Training is being conducted by early childhood department staff and several outside consultants.

PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education) questions the scale of the initial effort. PURE, which has been monitoring preschool programs in Chicago, suggests that the board start out smaller and grow as the inevitable glitches in the program are worked out.

LEARNING TECHNOLOGY The board is using $3 million to hire up to five people in each of the system’s six regions to provide training for teachers and other school staff on ways to incorporate computers into the curriculum.

BETTER LIBRARIES, MORE TEXTBOOKS Schools that submit proposals will receive extra funds to buy library books and materials (a total of $1 million) and to purchase new textbooks ($5 million on top of standard allocations). The board also will put $2 million into redeveloping its central library, which was closed by former Supt. Ted Kimbrough to help balance the board’s budget.

ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS The board has set aside $12 million to pay for the alternative schools that began operating last February; run by some 30 outside organizations, the schools serve about 1,400 students. (See Catalyst, March 1995.) In addition, the board expects to receive $10.5 million from the new state program for alternative schools, which would allow Chicago’s schools to expand.

PRINCIPAL AND TEACHER TRAINING Three programs aim to improve teacher and principal performance. Through the Master Principals program, 17 veterans will be paired with colleagues who need on-the-job advice and assistance; the veterans will take leaves-of-absence from their schools. A Principals Academy, run jointly with the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, will provide management training and workshops. And a Teachers Academy will provide workshops on teaching practices, focusing on math and science instruction, as well as extra training for new teachers and substitutes. $3.6 million is budgeted for the projects.

LSC TRAINING Each local school council will receive $400 to spend on optional training in any area they choose; total cost is $240,000. LSC members are required by a new state law to attend three days of mandatory training organized by the University of Illinois at Chicago. (See Catalyst, June 1996.)

HIGH SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT The city’s high schools are in far worse academic shape than elementary schools, and the board has set aside $5.6 million for a range of improvement projects. Freshman academies for incoming 9th-graders are slated to open at 35 high schools, at a cost of $2 million. Another $3.6 million has been budgeted for efforts to reform the curriculum, to restructure vocational education and to offer more college preparation programs.

A recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented the failings of most high schools, and Vallas has said he wants public high schools to emulate the “back-to-basics” curriculum of Catholic high schools.

Vallas also has overhauled the Office of High School Services and Support, created last spring, by renaming it and shuffling staffers to new positions.

COLLEGE BRIDGE Summer school programs for up to 1,000 gifted elementary and high school students are planned for next summer on local college campuses, at a cost of $600,000.

TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY The Office of Accountability has opened a new six-person unit to help principals evaluate teachers and remove poorly performing ones. Cost: $360,000.

BUSINESS MANAGERS Some 50 to 60 students from local graduate schools of business will serve as business-manager “interns” at schools. Central office will assign some to schools in remediation; others will be sent to schools that request them. Cost: $900,000.

LAYOFFS About 130 positions, 80 from central office and 50 from citywide departments, have been closed, at a savings of $5.4 million.

SALARIES, BENEFITS Teachers, now in the second year of a four-year contract, will receive 3 percent raises, as will career service staff. The board and the teachers union have set up a joint committee to come up with ways to cut rising health-care costs, but, as yet, teachers have not been asked to increase their contribution toward health insurance. “That could be in the future,” Hoagland says. Senior managers at central office will not receive raises, Hoagland adds. The cost of teacher raises: $28 million to the board; $7 million to schools that have hired staff with state Chapter 1 and other discretionary funds. The cost of career service raises: $3 million.

MORE AUDITS, INVESTIGATIONS The Office of Investigations, headed by former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Maribeth Vander Weele, has been beefed up to 22 staff members, with a total budget of $2.67 million (including an additional $1.1 million for internal audits). However, the budget for the Inspector General’s Office, created two years ago by the state Legislature and headed by former FBI agent Kenneth Holt, remains virtually the same at $700,000 for 10 staffers.