Teachers voice disappointment with CPS budget

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 Last week CPS officials made their case for passing a budget that drained reserves, gave increases to charter schools and did not lower class sizes at traditional schools.

On Wednesday night was the one and only chance for the public to look an official in the eye and tell them what they think of the budget. But, being that it is mid-summer and the budget hearings were only announced Friday, the majority of people who showed up were teachers. 

Teachers, in the midst of  contentious contract negotiations with CPS, told officials that they were not happy with the salary increase that was incorporated into the budget. CPS officials worked a 2 percent raise into the budget.

“How are you going to insult me by asking me to work a longer day and giving me a 2 percent raise?” said teacher Andrea Parker. 

But many of the teachers did not bring up pay at all. Instead, they criticized the district’s continued investment in charter schools at a time of financial peril. They also asked why CPS leaders don’t fight against the creation of tax increment financing districts, which freeze taxes to schools and other entities in order to pay for economic improvements that are supposed to spur development. 

And they said that the absence of resources makes it difficult to do their job and makes it harder for them to swallow a longer school day. Kimberly Walls, a science teacher, said she often wonders what she could do with a fully working science lab.

“I don’t mind having my 6th, 7th and 8th grade students for 90 minutes if I have a lab to teach them in,” she said.

Her comments were echoed by teachers asking for more arts programming and lower class sizes.

The budget hearings at Malcolm X and Kennedy King colleges were two of three taking place simultaneously across the city. The hearings were announced on Friday at the same time the district published and posted its proposed $5.1 billion operating budget.

The budget calls for the draining of the reserves and reductions in money for programs, transportation and operations to cover a $665 million deficit. Magnet schools, charter schools and early childhood education see increases under the proposed budget.

The budget is set to be approved at the July 25 board meeting.

Board president David Vitale attended the Kennedy-King hearing, quietly sitting in the front. Afterwards, Vitale said that some of the comments made by the participants were not factually correct. “Many of them are angry about their pay,” he said.

But he said his job was to come to the hearing to listen and to parse out the difference between fact and fiction.

He bristled at the comments about charter schools taking away money from district-run schools. He said the money follows the students and charter school students get the same amount as other public school students.

Yet he partly acknowledged that the schools should be given more resources. Though he stressed every school gets at least half an art position, he said the resources limit what district can do.

“There’s only so much money to go around,” he said.

Though teachers union members, wearing their signature red shirts, were out in force, some members of parent groups and community organizations also showed up.

At Malcolm X, a pastor from the High Hopes campaign, which opposes harsh disciplinary measures, spoke out. He said he wanted more money for restorative justice programs, such as peace circles, and less spent on security.

Before the hearing at Malcolm X, Chicago Parents for Quality Education issued a statement taking the district to task for holding the hearings so soon after releasing the budget and holding them all on one day. The coalition includes several groups, including Raise Your Hand and Community Organizing and Family Issues, that support traditional schools and the union.

The statement noted that several central office departments saw increases, including the communications and public affairs office. At the same time, many neighborhood high schools are suffering.

Chicago Parents for Quality Education repeated their call to scale back the longer school day, which they say CPS does not have the money to properly implement.

With several years of budget cuts, one area that has been hit hard is the school maintenance personnel. Sharon Bonds, a janitor at Pullman School, asked officials if they were going to stop laying off her colleagues.

“When schools are not clean, it opens the door to rodents and germs,” she said. “It opens the door to sickness.”

Budget Director Ginger Ostro would not make Bonds any promises. She told Bonds that the district would have to continue “implementing changes” to reduce costs.