Chicago schools budget approaching the stimulus cliff

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In an unusual effort to solicit public input on the budget, Gov. Pat Quinn yesterday proposed $2 billion in cuts to education along with grim revenue estimates for a state awash in $13 billion of red ink.

Notably missing from revenues are some $3 billion in federal stimulus funds sent to schools since 2009, a loss that is part of what national observers call a “stimulus funding cliff” that threatens school districts across the country. In Chicago, where Quinn’s cuts would mean perhaps a $200 million shortfall, it’s unclear how well officials have prepared.

Officials hoped the one-time infusion of federal cash would be spent on efforts that would spark lasting reforms that wouldn’t require ongoing funding. Catalyst Ohio highlighted a few examples in its latest report, including a plan in Cleveland to buyout older, higher-paid teachers and the creation of a school improvement planning team in Columbus.

Here in Chicago, details on stimulus spending are somewhat murky. Yet, district officials are able to point out only a few examples of spending that will propel reforms.

In an unusual effort to solicit public input on the budget, Gov. Pat Quinn yesterday proposed $2 billion in cuts to education along with grim revenue estimates for a state awash in $13 billion of red ink.

Notably missing from revenues are some $3 billion in federal stimulus funds sent to schools since 2009, a loss that is part of what national observers call a “stimulus funding cliff” that threatens school districts across the country. In Chicago, where Quinn’s cuts would mean perhaps a $200 million shortfall, it’s unclear how well officials have prepared.

Officials hoped the one-time infusion of federal cash would be spent on efforts that would spark lasting reforms that wouldn’t require ongoing funding. Catalyst Ohio highlighted a few examples in its latest report, including a plan in Cleveland to buyout older, higher-paid teachers and the creation of a school improvement planning team in Columbus.

Here in Chicago, details on stimulus spending are somewhat murky. Yet, district officials are able to point out only a few examples of spending that will propel reforms.

According to budgets posted on the state Comptroller’s Financial Reimbursement Information System, some 70 percent of Chicago’s stimulus funds are paying for staff salaries and benefits—positions that could face the ax if new revenue never materializes. Of the other 30 percent, much has been allotted to charter and contract schools, where the funds may also be used for existing personnel.

The budgets also show that just 6 percent of the stimulus programs fall under “improvement of instructional services,” and Chicago budget officials say much of that money is paying for the salaries of instructional coaches in area offices.

On the other hand, the district used $1.5 million from a stimulus equipment grant to purchase new walk-in refrigerators, ovens and other lunchroom equipment in hundreds of schools. Chicago Public Schools has also used some of its stimulus money to pay for professional development, new teacher mentoring and data analysts at area offices.

All told, CPS will receive more than $940 million in stimulus dollars. But $564 million is from a pot of money meant to help states simply stabilize their budgets in 2009; of that, some $112 million protected funding for early childhood grants, while the rest was simply used to prop up general programming.

Chicago will also get some $115 million in extra IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) stimulus payouts and an additional $261 million in Title 1 funds. The district budgeted half of the dollars for use this fiscal year and the rest in 2011—a move that should, to some degree, lessen the impact of this summer’s funding cliff.

A November report by Access Living, an advocacy group for the disabled, suggests that Chicago has used nearly all of its IDEA stimulus grants to pay for existing staff. District officials, however, say the money has paid for about 197 new special education professionals and roughly 620 existing ones. (The district would not release a list of the teachers and aides paid for through IDEA stimulus funds without a Freedom of Information Act request.)

Far fewer details have emerged on how the district will spend its Title 1 stimulus payout.

Technically, the state has not even approved Chicago’s grant application yet, required before the funds are disbursed. State officials blame the delay on the size and scope of Chicago’s application, but they expect to approve it soon. Until they do, the Comptroller’s office will not post the budget online.

CPS budget officials say they expect the Title I grant to be approved, and some of the funding will ultimately pay for well over 500 jobs. Of the $130 million budgeted for programs this year, it will support:

  • $31.5 million on school improvement efforts at area offices, including a 10 percent set aside for professional development
  • $30 million on the “culture of calm” initiative
  • $32 million to fill a budget gap for early childhood and bilingual programs
  • $8.7 million for data analysts on area office school leadership teams
  • $7.3 million on turnaround initiatives
  • $5 million for new teacher mentoring
  • $1.8 million on career preparation programs
  • $1.5 million for world language programs
  • $1.3 million for parent involvement programs