Another analyst criticizes CPS budget

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 Access Living, an advocacy group that analyzes the Chicago Public Schools budget each year, has joined the Civic Federation of Chicago in opposing the proposed spending plans for 2012-2013.

While Access Living advocates for students with disabilities, it has many of the same concerns as the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog of local governments. Top among them is the plan to drain the district’s reserves.

The Civic Federation was worried mainly about how the district would deal with future deficits, which will be aggravated by a pension funding spike set to occur next year. Access Living is worried about how CPS will meet all its obligations this year, especially given the state’s fiscal crisis.

Rod Estvan, Access Living’s education policy and budget analyst, notes that the proposed budget includes raises of only 2 percent even though CPS is still negotiating with the Chicago Teachers Union over compensation and initiatives that would cost more money.

“They may have to hire more aides to deal with recess,” he continues.  Under CPS’s longer school day, all elementary schools must have recess, but under a partial contract agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, teachers cannot monitor recess or lunch.

CPS might also wind up needing more special education staff than they are projecting, notes Estvan. The proposed budget cuts 364 special education staff, the biggest reduction since 2007, without explaining why officials believe they can get along without the staffers, he says. The budget does not include special education enrollment projections, he notes.

Estvan also  points out that, despite increased identification of students with autism, the district is decreasing the number of positions in full autism programs by 4.5 percent.

“I am not saying that staff equals better achievement, but this is not the time to cut staff,” he says, noting a continuing and in some cases widening achievement gap for students with disabilities.

Estvan also is concerned about the amount of money CPS is setting aside for special education students at charter schools. The budget includes a $17 million increase for serving these students. Estvan says he supports more money for special education students and teachers at charter schools. But without enrollment projections or any idea how much the teachers will cost, he questions how district officials came up with the allocation.

Some of the increase is due to an increase in the reimbursement rate for special education teachers at charters – from $65,000 to $90,000.  Charter schools have longed complained that $65,000 is far too little for special education teacher salaries with benefits. Special education teachers are in high demand.

CPS officials have said they are compelled by a compact they signed, pushed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to become eligible for grant money. The compact is supposed to achieve this equity between traditional and charter schools.

Like the Civic Federation, Estvan says there should be more opportunities for the public to follow the budgeting process. He notes that the board’s Finance and Audit subcommittee last met in February of 2011. Also, the three budget hearings CPS conducted this year were held simultaneously on one night.

In addition, Estvan says the budget office has been downsized and replaced with far less experienced employees, costing it institutional knowledge.

CPS printed few copies of the budget, a cost-saving move, it said. The only way to analyze the budget was through an “interactive” website. However, Estvan notes that much of the information was not presented the same way as in previous years and thus could not be compared with previous years.

Under state law, the school board must approve a budget within the first 60 days of its fiscal year, making Aug. 30 the deadline for CPS. The administration has said it will present the budget for approval at the board meeting next Wednesday.