School budget forecast: cloudy

Print More
Columbia Explorers Academy

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Columbia Explorers Academy

An audit 20 days into the school year proved it: Amundsen High School attracted 150 more students this year than central office projected last spring.

As a result, the Lincoln Square school was entitled to five additional teachers, plus a second assistant principal and a librarian. The audit proved no surprise to Principal Carlos Muñoz, who had expected at least 1,500 students and had appealed—with no success—the district’s projection of 1,461.

Muñoz, like dozens of principals put in a similar predicament every year, needed his new teachers on the first day of school, not the 20th. So to avoid a mid-semester shakeup of classes, he dug into the school’s own funds and hired several retired teachers to temporarily fill the gap.

In addition to Amundsen, the district missed the mark on enrollment at hundreds of other schools this year, often by wide enough margins to force changes to budgets and staffing. Pritzker Elementary lost, then gained, teaching positions, a snafu caused by inaccurate projections. (For more on Amundsen, Pritzker and other schools, see related story.)

Like Muñoz, most principals appeal their projections. The stakes are high: When projections are too low, a school’s discretionary money can be stretched thin to keep teachers already on board and hire substitutes as needed. On the other hand, projections that are too high can mean losing teachers.

Either way, schools and students face potential classroom shakeups that hurt instruction. And principals are left to haggle with the budget office, a process that can be time-consuming and, according to some outside observers, political.

Muñoz says the budget office has been accommodating, especially after the audit. But he adds: “You have to be [persistent] in contacting them everyday.”

‘A tumultuous first month’

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of enrollment data for fiscal year 2008 shows that projections were off by 30 students or more (roughly the threshold at which budgets are affected) in approximately 40 percent of Chicago’s schools. The analysis also shows that:

* One in five schools had enrollment projections that were inaccurate by 10 percent or more.

* Projections for neighborhood schools were generally less accurate than those made for selective and magnet schools, which usually have enrollment caps.

* Schools were more likely to enroll fewer students than projected, putting them at risk of losing teachers once school began.

CPS, for its part, notes that citywide projections for this year were more than 99 percent accurate. And most staff positions are cemented over the spring and summer; according to the district, just 225 positions opened and 100 closed after the school year started.

But when projections are off target, CPS is to blame, says Marguerite Roza, a school finance and budget expert at the University of Washington who says flatly that the district relies too heavily on enrollment projections to drive budgets and staffing. Doing so is particularly problematic, she explains, in a system that offers students and families a wide range of schooling options—something top CPS officials are vocal about providing and, in fact, beefing up.

“The problem isn’t in the forecasting, it’s in the student assignment [system],” says Roza. “It’s the district’s fault.”

Other districts that offer widespread school choice have computer systems to manage student assignment, leaving far less chance for last-minute enrollment fluctuations. (See story)

The problem doesn’t surprise Christina Warden, a longtime budget watchdog. She says principals use a number of strategies to accommodate additional students who show up at the beginning of the year—from hiring substitutes, as Muñoz did at Amundsen, to allowing class sizes to balloon temporarily. Warden worked for the Chicago branch of the nonprofit Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform before its recent demise.

To solve the situation, principals must negotiate repeatedly with the budget office to get additional teachers. “Regardless of how the principal has configured it,” Warden says, “those kids have to go through a tumultuous first month of school.”

Under the leadership of David Vitale, the former chief administrative officer, the district started taking steps to eliminate politics and favoritism in the interaction between principals, the budget office and the demographics office, notes Warden. The new mantra: Stick very closely to the staffing formulas. If a school gets extra kids in September, it gets exactly as many teachers as formulas allow; fewer students mean fewer teachers.

But Warden doubts that politics will ever be completely eradicated, especially during the budget season and into the summer, when enrollment remains a guessing game.

Valencia Rias, a local school council advocate with the education group Designs for Change, puts it more bluntly: “Every year, these principals have to fight for [teaching] positions.”

How it works

In February, principals pore over enrollment projections that feed into various staffing formulas. In general, the formulas give schools one elementary teacher for every 28 students and one high school teacher for every five fully-enrolled classes.

The projections are made in January by the demographics and planning department, led by James Dispensa, which uses a computer algorithm that relies heavily on past enrollment data. But a number of factors complicate Dispensa’s job, including the opening of new schools and the closing of others, which can dramatically shift enrollment patterns; the fact that half of CPS students don’t attend neighborhood high schools, where enrollment shifts are prevalent; and ever-changing housing trends.

Dispensa says he tweaks the algorithm on a case-by-case basis to accommodate these factors. His office also is considering a revamp in the way students apply to selective high schools and programs, which could help the district solidify neighborhood high schools’ enrollment earlier on. For starters, the district will be automatically assigning all unclaimed 8th-graders to their neighborhood high school by April 26.

Even so, most schools dispute their enrollment projections, and this year was no exception: More than three-fourths of schools filed appeals that were reviewed by a group of district officials from various offices.

Last year, the committee made adjustments to very few appeals—just 60 in total. This year, the number rose to 86.

Facing the ax?

Typically, principals seek to boost their projections, often to save teachers hired the previous year. Where appeals are lost, the budget office cuts staff positions when the fiscal year begins in July. Several principals told Catalyst that they are particularly defensive about losing hard-to-find teachers, such as bilingual or special education instructors.

Budget officials say they will be tightening the rules even more next year if schools enroll fewer kids than projected, which was the trend this year. Schools will face a sharpened ax when it comes to cutting teachers, according to a Feb. 26 memo to principals from Schools CEO Arne Duncan.

In the memo, Duncan warns principals who won their appeals this spring to expect by-the-book staff cuts if their enrollment falls short. The same goes for schools without attendance boundaries, since those schools have more control over the number of children they enroll and should not have last-minute fluctuations.

Duncan is granting some latitude to schools with attendance boundaries. Principals at neighborhood elementary schools will be able to keep up to two additional teachers; in neighborhood high schools, principals will be able to keep one extra teacher. The district’s reasoning: Let schools keep the teachers to lessen the impact on class schedules, room assignments and other planning. (For more on the impact of late enrollment on high schools, see story.)

Any change in staffing of special education teachers will be audited.

The budget tightening doesn’t sit well with Rias, who wants the district to ensure every child has a “stable teacher” on the first day of school.

“You may have 40 kids in a classroom waiting for that position to open up,” she contends. Even if the board approves extra teachers, “unfortunately, not every school has someone ready, willing and able to fill those spots.”

Intern Rebecca Harris contributed to this report.

Contact John Myers at (312) 673-3874 or myers@catalyst-chicago.org.