Where will the money come from?

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When the School Reform Board of Trustees brought its idea for alternative schools for students with discipline problems into fruition last month, it dashed both hopes and fears.

No, the “new” schools—most are simply expansions of existing schools—will not relieve regular schools of all their troublemakers, as some high school principals and disciplinarians had hoped. Rather, the schools will serve only students who have committed the most serious offenses in the school system’s discipline code, e.g. aggravated assault. “We’ve been telling principals, this is not your behavior-management program. It’s just part of it,” says Sue Gamm, who as chief of specialized services organized the alternative schools program. And no, the schools will not be dumping grounds, as some reform advocates had feared. Rather, the schools will have small class sizes and have to meet clearcut criteria for student performance. Would that all school programs were so well thought out.

At this point, the biggest concern is the program’s survival. At $12 million a year, alternative schools for troublemakers and dropouts are a costly undertaking. Todd Rosenkranz, budget and policy analyst for the Chicago Panel on School Policy, figures that the board can find the money for the next several years. “It’s just a question of what they want to forego somewhere else,” he says. Rosenkranz goes on to note that the board has not spelled out financial plans for any of the other education initiatives it recently announced. New programs that may look great in and of themselves may not look so great if cutbacks are required somewhere else.

More important, given the disastrous financial history of the Chicago Public Schools, it’s scary that the Reform Board has not presented a financial plan to the public, that shows how it expects to pay for new initiatives and salary increases throughout its tenure. The public simply should not have to take it on faith that all is well in the money department. When the School Board releases its proposed 1996-97 budget, it should release a three-year financial plan as well. There was a time—between the board’s financial collapse in 1979 and the revisions to the School Reform Act last May—when that was required by law. It’s truly stunning that the Republicans in Springfield let Mayor Daley off the hook on this.

ABOUT US The Catalyst Editorial Board has elected new officers. The chair is Betty J. Miller, chair of the Humanities Department at Lindblom Technical High School, a member of the Teachers for Chicago Mentor Academy, coordinator of the Coalition of Essential Schools program at Lindblom and a curriculum writer for the Board of Education. The vice chair is Martha Silva-Vera, principal of Philip Sheridan School in South Chicago and a former Reading Recovery teacher leader.