WebExtra: Uncertain funding for 100 new schools

Print More

At the moment, the math simply doesn’t add up.

The Chicago Public School ‘s sweeping plan to open 100 new schools in the next six years creates a lopsided budget equation that may be difficult to balance.

On one side of that equation is the estimated $125 million needed to launch the new schools . CPS officials predict that startup expenses will average $1 million for each elementary school and $1.5 million per high school.

On the other side is the dismal state of the district’s finances—CPS simply has no money to spare. The district was forced to make drastic cuts this spring—including 2,180 teaching positions—to close a $100 million deficit. At the same time, it faces rising spending related to annual raises stipulated in the teachers’ contract.

School officials are expecting private donors to chip in $50 million to pay for early hiring and other planning efforts to get the new schools off the ground. Already, $30 million has been raised, including a $2.5 million lead gift from the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust. CPS is still courting national and local foundations, and business funders to ante up the rest.

However, the board has not yet set aside money to cover the anticipated $75 million it will cost to renovate and equip the new schools with computers, desks and textbooks. “We will find money to pay for the new schools,” says spokesman Peter Cunningham .

The board has already set aside money to pay capital costs of new construction, Cunningham notes. Sixteen of the schools will be housed in newly built facilities (some are already under construction) and the rest will be created inside existing buildings. (See Chart: 40 new schools underway)

In its fiscal 2004 budget, the board earmarked $440 million for capital spending.

Facing the reality of failing

At a press conference today, Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled the plan before an audience of supporters at the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

“The last thing we should accept is a two-tiered system with some schools improving while others continue to struggle,” Mayor Daley said. “We must face the reality that, for schools that have consistently underperformed, it’s time to start over.”

Daley’s school reform efforts came under fire last summer in a report by the Civic Committee—a group of 75 business leaders from top local corporations—that criticized the mayor’s school reforms for producing mediocre results. The prestigious group, which has taken a hands-on approach to improving schools, called for the mayor to take bold action, suggesting the creation of 100 new charter schools.

Renaissance 2010 , as the new plan is called, draws on the group’s idea of expanding the district’s charter offerings and stitches it together with two other efforts: overhauling schools in poor neighborhoods where public housing is being torn down, and replacing traditional high schools with smaller, theme-based schools. About two-thirds of the new schools will be charter or contract schools run by outside companies or groups. The remaining third, most of them small schools, will be run by CPS.

According to CPS, thousands of children are on waiting lists to get into charter schools, which do not have selective admissions policies but typically require students and parents to apply. The mayor noted that 17 of the system’s 19 charters are outperforming CPS-run schools in the same neighborhoods, and none are on probation.

State law currently limits charters to only one campus. But CPS is maneuvering around that limit by approaching some of the initial 15 charters, which opened before the limits were put into law, to open branch campuses.

Also part of the plan is an effort to evenly distribute throughout the city a variety of high school formats. Each of the city’s six high school attendance areas would have specialty schools in each of the following areas: selective enrollment, fine and performing arts, math and science, International Baccalaureate, world languages, military academy, early college and vocational education.

According to the board’s plan, each of the six areas currently lacks at least four of these options; two areas are missing six or more. Three to five high schools would be revamped every year between 2005 and 2010, with the lowest-performers (32 high schools are on probation) at the top of the list for closing. Austin and Calumet, which will not accept freshmen this fall, will be the first high schools to be revamped.

New principals, new teachers

The plan calls for the new schools to be completely restaffed, forcing hundreds of educators to search for new jobs. CPS will hire principals for the new schools, most of which will not be required to seat a local school council.

District policy stipulates that displaced principals have six months to find a new position; under the current contract, teachers have one year. Those who do not find jobs will be terminated.

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says she is “appalled and shocked” that CPS put the plan together without giving principals a chance to weigh in. By leaving principals and teachers out, the district is “building a platform where their employees are angry, disgruntled and bitter about the treatment they are receiving,” she warns.

According to Berry , one principal was assured in March by CEO Arne Duncan that her school was doing well and would not be shut down. “I really resent them moving my principals and assistant principals around as if they were pawns on a chessboard,” Berry says. Except for those at the 10 schools slated for closure this month, principals have not been notified that their schools will be shut down.

Marilyn Stewart, the newly elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union, declined to comment specifically on the new schools plan. “Our priority is first and foremost to protect our members,” she commented in a prepared statement.

Fireworks likely from grassroots

Some activists fault the board for giving short shrift to local school councils. Greg Washington, president of the Grand Boulevard Federation, says his group is concerned that communities will not have enough input into decision-making about the new schools.

“We have been an advocate for strong and effective local school councils,” says Washington, who is not an LSC member but is involved with the Mid-South initiative, a plan to overhaul schools in four high-poverty South Side neighborhoods. “The challenge is to make the local school councils an effective instrument for community input and involvement. We’d like to see CPS put resources into that at the same time they are putting resources into new schools.”

To contact Lorraine Forte, Veronica Anderson and Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 427-4830 or send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.