State funding cuts deficit, class sizes won’t increase

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The Doomsday scenario—featuring CPS classes bulging with 35 students—has been averted, but deep cuts are still on the table and teachers are being pressed hard to forego pay raises. 

The Doomsday scenario—featuring CPS classes bulging with 35 students—has been averted, but deep cuts are still on the table and teachers are being pressed hard to forego pay raises. 

The district is now shifting much of the burden of the budget shortfall to high schools. And at a press conference Monday, CEO Ron Huberman was joined by two politically-connected civic leaders to pressure teachers to give up their negotiated 4 percent raises. 

“I challenge the labor unions to do the right thing so that we can open the schools fully operational,” said Leon Finney Jr., president of The Woodlawn Organization. Juan Rangel, president of the United Neighborhood Organization, told teachers that they should recognize that flat salaries are the “new normal.” UNO, a 20-year-old community organization, runs eight charter schools, and Rangel said their teachers will not get a pay raise next year. 

When a reporter pointed out to him that UNO’s teachers are not unionized and therefore do not have much choice, Rangel noted only that teachers are still returning to work next year.   

Incoming Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis accused Huberman of trying to strong-arm the union and repeated her call for him to provide a detailed budget so that union leaders can help the administration find cuts that will not hurt students. Lewis, who officially takes office on July 1, cannot make decisions such as conceding salary increases without teachers’ approval, but says she is not inclined to bring an “either-or scenario” to her members. 

Lewis also pointed out that the union contract calls for a hefty increase in health care costs, which would offset the raises teachers are slated to receive. 

On the same day that Huberman amped up the pressure on teachers for more financial concessions, he was also celebrating a budget victory: Huberman said state officials were able to save the day by rolling back more than $1 billion in education cuts proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn. Such a cut would have meant $300 million less for CPS. 

Instead, it looks like the state’s education budget will only take a $300 million hit, and CPS will only lose $57 million. (Quinn has yet to sign a budget, however.) 

That leaves the district with a $370 million deficit, and Huberman announced Monday that he plans to keep elementary class sizes at 28 students. CPS will also pay for full-day kindergarten, rather than the half-day option that Huberman previously proposed. 

Still, the CEO was careful to emphasize that not everything is off the table. High school class sizes will increase to 33 students from 31, and other programs will take dramatic hits, including enrichment activities, magnet and selective enrollment school programs and transportation. 

Some 1,200 teachers still stand to lose their jobs. And funding to charter schools will be reduced, though not as much as the 18 percent originally proposed.   “We are not sure of the severity of the cuts to each of these programs,” Huberman said.  His administration will make those decisions as they put together the budget over the coming weeks. 

The new fiscal year starts July 1, but it is not uncommon for the district to release a budget and hold hearings on it in July. One possible complication:  Five schools have some of their students start school in July, while another 200 begin in August. 

Huberman said he decided to keep elementary class sizes level because research shows small classes are especially important in kindergarten through 3rd grade. But he admitted that different research shows class size is important at all different grade levels. 

Lewis, a chemistry teacher from King College Prep, said the fact that Huberman targeted high schools shows he and his staff don’t know much about education. More high school students will drop out, and instead of the “culture of calm” Huberman is trying to create with his $60 million school safety initiative, there will be a culture of chaos, she said. 

“You are looking at increasing the high school teacher load from 140 to 165 [students],” Lewis said. “That is 165 essays, 165 lab books. If you are not a teacher who just hands out worksheets, if you care about how students write and how they think, then this will be a significant increase.”  

Lewis said she met with Huberman for dinner last week, but the two didn’t discuss these difficult issues. She said she was disappointed that Huberman was airing the issue in the press, instead of talking to her. 

Parents from the advocacy group Raise Your Hand also were put off by the organization of Monday’s press conference. The group of mostly North Side parents came together to lobby for more education money and were asked to stand behind Huberman. 

But leaders said they did not know that the CEO was going to use the occasion to lean on the union, and said they do not have a position on what the union should do. 

Meanwhile, parent Faith Spencer said that applauding state officials for maintaining education funding sends the wrong message. Maintaining funding when all other expenses are going up is not a victory, she said. 

Members of Raise Your Hand want a more comprehensive, long-term solution, such as an end to heavy reliance on property taxes to fund schools and reform of the law governing tax increment financing, which would free up more money for schools.  

“It is unacceptable,” said Spencer, whose children attend Burley Elementary in Lakeview. Like Burley, many neighborhood schools in wealthy neighborhoods have been asking parents to donate money to offset the detrimental effects of across-the-board class size increases. 

Parents now might wrongly feel like the problem no longer exists, Spencer said.