Parents seek money for longer day while CPS looks to budget cuts

March 28, 2012

A day after announcing a looming deficit of $600 to $700 million – not counting any employee raises or the costs of a longer school day -- Chicago school officials offered few ideas for balancing the books for the next school year.

Critics of the longer school day seized on the opportunity to argue at Wednesday’s board meeting that schools need more money in order to see any benefits from more time.

Among them were parents from Prieto Elementary, who said their school lacks the resources to make a longer day productive.

“We would need five additional teachers for music, science, drama and an interventionist,” parent Veronica Serrano said. Other parents noted the school is so overcrowded, class must be held in hallways.

But it seems unlikely the school will get those teachers. After the public participation segment of the meeting, officials laid out a grim financial vision for the coming next year.

Tim Cawley, the district’s chief administrative officer,  said at a School Board meeting that for starters, the district hopes to find “tens of millions of dollars” in savings by buying goods and scheduling workers more efficiently, and cutting down on unnecessary procurement.

“One of the things we are going to do is find ways to reduce the centrally controlled funding, and allocate money to the schools,” Cawley said.

As a result, principals will get more flexibility in budgeting. To avoid confusion, they won’t get their budgets electronically. Instead, budgets will be handed out during April meetings with network staff, who will answer principals’ questions and help them decide what to cut.

Cawley also noted that CPS will crack down on vendors that submit bills for work done before their contracts are approved - and on employees who tell them to do so.

“I don’t blame you for being disturbed by what you’re seeing,” Cawley said in response to a question from board member Penny Pritzker about payments on the board’s agenda.

 “Until we don’t pay a supplier, and until we fire an employee, people are not going to take it seriously,” he said.

More pension relief sought from legislators

In the legislative arena, Cawley said the district will need another round of pension relief. The district’s pension and debt service payments alone will total around $700 million this year, and will keep growing after that.

Bottom line, though, there will be no “one-time fixes,” he said.

As it is spring, talk of enormous budget deficits is not unusual. Every year for the past three years, officials have announced shortfalls of more than $500 million. Typically they have lead to layoffs of central office and citywide employees and program cuts.

The most dramatic announcement was in 2009. Then-CEO Ron Huberman said the district was in the hole by $1 billion. In the end, the hole was filled with state pension reform that saved the district $400 million and other last-minute measures, including EduJobs, a federal grant program to help districts save teaching jobs.

The pension reform passed in 2009 gave the district a three-year holiday, which is coming to an end this year. Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants pension reform this year, but it is unclear what form it will take.

Longer day settlement to cost board

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union announced that it had reached a legal settlement with CPS over the 13 schools that adopted the longer day this year under procedures that the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board found questionable, triggering a lawsuit.

In addition to payments of around $750 that the board already had promised to teachers, CPS will give teachers up to $1,500 each – a move that will cost the district about $300,000. Also, when a new contract is signed, the teachers’ salaries for this entire year will be retroactively increased to whatever the CTU negotiates for the 2012-13 school year. 

CPS officials said in a statement that "we choose to focus on the classroom, not the courtroom and this settlement is an attempt to avoid the courtroom.”