Principals get budgets, but uncertainty remains

April 27, 2012

Chicago Public Schools leaders on Friday again touted that principals had more money to spend as they please. But, even as they handed high school principals their budgets, they declined to provide complete information about programs that are being closed out in order to provide the additional cash.

On the high end, a school with 3,000 students and with a high poverty rate would get $1.3 million above the usual amount of discretionary funding. But the vast majority of high schools have fewer than 1,000 students and stand to receive a much more modest amount. On average, schools would have about $200,000 extra.

The district is being explicit about how principals could spend the money: buying instructional material or tools such as software licenses; provide social-emotional supports for students; resources for summer and after school programs; and do all they need to do in order to fill a longer day, according to a guidebook principals were given.

The guidebook even suggests how much the principal should budget for particular expenses, though the range is wide. For example, the guidebook suggests that college students or parent workers be hired to monitor recess and lunch, and could cost between $5,000 and $20,000.

 “Everyone knows it is challenging,” said Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley. “But this gives principals the flexibility to decide the way the day is built and the staff is staffed.”

The district will not release a full list of all the eliminated programs until officials present the entire budget in June, spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said. In addition, in order to add the $130 million more in discretionary money to schools, officials are still searching for $100 million in efficiencies in administration and operations. According to the district projections, CPS is facing a deficit of between $600 to $700 million next year.

Ziegler sees no problem with basing a budget on savings that have yet to be found. “They are budget people and they are confident,” she said.

However, one principal who uploaded his budget on Friday said he was a bit worried. “This is the only thing I am wondering, Where is the money coming from?” said the principal, who didn’t want to be identified. According to him, CPS officials told principals all interviews must be approved by the communications office.

Another principal said the fact that there’s no promise the extra money will be available in subsequent years gives him pause. District officials have said big deficits will haunt them for years.

Chief Instruction Officer Jennifer Cheatham only gave three examples of programs that were eliminated: coordinators for Culture of Calm, the initiative by former CEO Ron Huberman to curb violence in schools; some International Baccalaureate and magnet cluster program coordinators; as well as extra money given to schools that were once part of a special program to give higher-performing schools more autonomy. Officials stress that the coordinators are going away, not the programs.

Cheatham also confirmed that high schools were not given specific line items for Freshman Connection, a summer transition program for incoming freshmen. Former CEO Arne Duncan came up with the idea for that program following news that hundreds of freshmen didn’t show up for weeks after the first day of high school.

Cheatham argued that principals reported to them that Freshman Connection didn’t work well. However, several principals contacted Friday said they planned to offer the program anyway. Cheatham also said that IB, Culture of Calm and magnet cluster coordinators wouldn’t be missed. Either their services were redundant, or, as with Culture of Calm, they mostly orchestrated vendors, she said.

Under the new system, district officials will request proposals from vendors for a number of different expenses and come up with a preferred vendor list. This, according to Cheatham, should take away the need for coordinators.

An assistant principal who went to the budget briefing in lieu of his boss said his first impression was one of relief. “The budgets reflect the financial crisis but it wasn’t as bad as we feared,” he said.

Giving principals more control and not so many mandated positions is a “wonderful thing,” the assistant principal said. “Not all schools need the same thing." The many school stakeholders will come together to try to figure out what the school should do with their discretionary money.

Despite the information they were given, principals note that so many unknowns make it difficult to determine what their schools' final budget will look like.