Tracking elusive school-level spending

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More than $1 billion of the district’s $4 billion operating budget is allocated to “citywide services,” a catch-all pot of money that makes it difficult to track where the money is spent.

Roughly $200 million of this pot comes from state and federal grants that are distributed to schools at the discretion of the CPS leadership. These grants pay for educational programs, such as the reading initiative and the math and science initiative.

Salaries for reading coaches who are assigned to work with schools on probation are paid out of this fund because staffing formulas would not allow for such extra supports.

Other expenses budgeted to citywide services include teacher pensions and student transportation. Also, some lunchroom and facility operations staff who work in schools are budgeted centrally.

CPS Budget Director Pedro Martinez admits the current system makes it impossible to track all of its school-level spending. “We don’t have a cost accounting system,” he says. “Most organizations can tell to the unit, to the dollar, the labor and material costs.”

Martinez says a new CPS financial system, slated for launch next fall, will help shed more light on how district funds are budgeted, and scrapping staffing formulas for per-pupil budgeting will ensure equity.

However, watchdog groups complain that the CPS budget is “impenetrable” and are skeptical of the planned improvements.

Clearing up longstanding mysteries would be a plus, but “with the CPS budget, just know that you will never know,” says Diana Lauber, managing director of Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, which supports per-pupil budgeting.

“I’m astounded by all the money that’s in [citywide services],” notes Christina Warden, also of Cross City. Warden analyzed CPS small high school budgets and found dozens had circumvented staffing formulas, which meant the official budget was “virtually useless.”

She also explains that small high schools get grant money directly from private foundations; funds that are accounted for in the schools’ internal budget, but not in the official district document.

Andrea Lee, who until recently tracked the CPS budget for Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, says monitoring the district’s capital funding is a “nightmare.” She tracks funding from year-to-year and routinely sees entire projects “disappear” from the capital budget without explanation.

The district’s efforts to improving budget transparency is prompted, in part, by pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to comply with an ongoing desegregation consent decree. For the first time last year, for instance, CPS conducted its own analysis of school-level spending by race.

Since then, it has embarked on a process to allocate citywide and administrative costs to schools in an effort to figure out how much it costs to educate a child here.

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