CPS budget approved, but changes are expected

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The CPS Board of Education approved a $5.7 billion budget on Wednesday, though Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said he is sure it will have to be adjusted once the teacher contract is resolved. 

Teacher compensation is one of the big issues still unsettled, but there’s little room left in the budget to increase salaries.

CPS originally built a 2 percent raise for teachers in the budget. But that money was used to fund a partial agreement between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. In the agreement, the district promised to hire about 500 new teachers. With these new teachers and scheduling shifts, current teachers will not have to work additional hours, although children will be in school longer this year.

Cawley said that officials will have to find more savings to pay for any kind of raise for teachers. In answering a question about where the money will come from, Cawley said he is not sure.

“We will evaluate where we can turn up the funds,” he said.

Despite the uncertainty, the budget had to be approved. State law calls for districts to have a budget in place by 60 days after the end of the fiscal year. CPS’ fiscal year ended June 30.

In order to balance the budget, the board agreed to empty the district’s reserves, a move that has been roundly criticized. Cawley again defended the move, saying it would be irresponsible to have millions in the bank while important programs for students are cut.

But Cawley and board members also emphasized that no savings account will be available in future years to deal with deficits. District officials say that in the future CPS will face substantial deficits.

“This is a one-time fix and I just want people to be clear that all we are doing is postponing a day of reckoning,” Board Member Henry Bienen said.

Cawley said he and district leadership know that they need to prepare for the future. “We have a lot of work to do to restructure the district because we will have no reserves next year,” he said.

CTU President Karen Lewis picked up on Cawley’s comment when she spoke during public participation. With 310 underutilized schools and 82 elementary schools with less than 300 students, many speculate that district officials will close dozens of schools, if not 100, in the coming years to save money.

“I am concerned about the restructuring of the district,” Lewis told board members. “As you talk about closing and turning around schools, make sure you have partnerships with the community and teachers and parents.”

Despite having to fill a big budget hole, Cawley said the school district is investing in more choice for students, through both specialty programs and more charter schools. Charter schools will get an additional $76 million to pay for 4,665 more seats and to increase their per pupil funding allotment.

This raised questions. Board member Mahalia Hines asked Cawley what is being done to bolster neighborhood schools. Cawley said the administration believes that the best way to help neighborhood schools is to give the principals more discretionary money. This year, schools got $130 million more in discretionary money, though some of it was a result of giving the schools fewer allotted positions.

 “Schools in the toughest neighborhoods got the most discretionary money,” Cawley said.

Yet Wendy Katten, president of the parent group Raise Your Hand, said many parents are worried about neighborhood schools. Because they are losing student population, many neighborhood high schools saw positions cut.

“Parents perceive that there is a lack of attention to neighborhood high schools,” Katten said.