Waiting for Quinn to act, CPS mum on budget priorities

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When CPS CEO Ron Huberman laid out for principals the potential $1 billion deficit facing the district last month, he said they would see the bad news up close and personal on the Monday of Spring break. That’s when they would receive, via e-mail, a barebones school budget based on the worst-case scenario.

When CPS CEO Ron Huberman laid out for principals the potential $1 billion deficit facing the district last month, he said they would see the bad news up close and personal on the Monday of Spring break. That’s when they would receive, via e-mail, a barebones school budget based on the worst-case scenario.

But the bad news –which was to include 37-student classes and deep cuts to early childhood, bilingual education and special ed–never came.

On Thursday, CPS Chief Financial Officer Diana Ferguson said that with a pension reform bill that could save the school district $400 million waiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature, school officials were holding up the school-level budgets to see what would happen. Quinn’s spokesperson would not say whether or when the governor plans to sign the bill.

Ferguson would not say what will not be cut if Quinn signs the bill. “Nothing is on the table and nothing is off the table,” she said. “Some might think that the first place we would go is to class sizes, but the early childhood advocates would disagree, as would the bilingual and special education advocates.”

In previous years, school principals had their budgets by April, but Ferguson said there is no firm date now, regardless of Quinn’s decision.

Ferguson also was quick to note that, even with pension relief, CPS would still face a deficit of more than $600 million.

Ferguson commented at a press conference with superintendents of large school districts, who called on the legislature to find more money for education. The gathering was held at Morgan Park High School.

The superintendents and their representatives underscored the point that they are in dire straits for two reasons. Currently the state owes school districts $890 million, including more than $200 million to Chicago.

Also, Quinn’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes $1.3 billion less for education. Officials say this trickles down to about $300 million less for CPS.

These realities have forced school districts across the state to issue mass layoff notices to teachers, who must be informed in the Spring that they might not have jobs next school year. If nothing is done, experts project that some 20,000 teachers will be out of work.

Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, said that he has never seen so many school districts in such turmoil. He and others pointed to Indian Prairie School District, which serves Naperville and Aurora, as a wealthy district that has sent out notices to 145 staffers.

He acknowledged that Quinn might be using the threat of massive education cuts to rally support for a tax increase. “I don’t know if it is a game,” he said.

But Diane Rutledge, executive director of the Large Unit District Association, said that if it is, it is a disturbing one. “These are people’s jobs,” she said. “These are people’s lives.”

She added that the superintendents don’t want to prescribe what the legislature should do, they just want them to do something. And time is running short. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the Spring in three weeks.

“Find the money,” she said.

Looking on, Morgan Park High School Principal Beryl Shingles said she just wants to know what she should expect in the coming year.

She said that teachers in her building, especially those without seniority, are concerned that they won’t have jobs and she doesn’t know what to tell them.

 “I feel like I am on an emotional roller-coaster,” she said.