For the Record: Paying for school actions

April 11, 2013

To help sell their plans for a district shakeup, CPS leaders have touted a variety of school improvements. But paying for those improvements will mean taking the district deeper into debt at a time when the district is already facing substantial debt service obligations.

Should it be approved by the Board of Education, CPS will issue a $329 million bond to pay for improvements at welcoming schools, turnarounds, schools with co-locations and a few other special district projects, according to a supplemental capital budget released last weekend. Though the bond details haven’t been worked out yet, CPS spokesman David Miranda says the district is projecting debt service payments, including principal and interest, of about $25 million a year for 30 years, starting in 2015.

The debt service payments will be more than covered by the $43 million a year in operating costs saved by closing schools, Miranda says.

“It is a good thing to invest in these schools and we would want to do it regardless of whether we close schools,” he says. “It is difficult to educate students when there’s no air conditioning or students are not warm or dry or safe.”

One looming question, however, is whether CPS can afford to take on more debt.

CPS leaders have repeatedly said schools had to be closed because of a projected $1 billion budget deficit. Yet one of the reasons CPS is facing such a large deficit is its already-existing debt: In the upcoming fiscal year, the district’s payment on principal and interest is scheduled to go up by about $100 million to $475 million.

Some of the expenses that CPS is categorizing as capital spending also are a bit curious. For instance, CPS leaders want to spend $40 million on new textbooks aligned to the Common Core. However, textbooks are commonly considered operational expenses, says Bobby Otter, education and fiscal policy analyst with the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Miranda, however, says that textbooks are used over the course of several years and therefore can be considered a long-term investment.

Other spending

The supplemental budget also includes money to provide upgrades in schools that are part of CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s special initiatives. For example, high schools that will now either be wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate or have IB programs will receive upgrades to their buildings, such as new science labs with equipment.

In addition, 18 elementary schools that are being provided support through the Office of Strategic School Support Services will be renovated. Miranda says the office works with schools that are struggling and the spending is Byrd-Bennett’s attempt to counter the complaint that closing schools didn’t get the support needed to prevent being shut down.

As Byrd-Bennett has promised, the receiving schools will get building upgrades as needed, as well as air conditioning, libraries and iPads, all of which will be paid for with the supplement capital budget. The school getting the most improvements is Sumner, at $8.5 million. The school getting the least is DePriest, which was built in 2002.

Also, the supplemental budget includes tax increment financing money for an addition to Coonley and money to create a sports field for Jones College Prep, which will be two miles away on the field south of National Teachers Academy.