Budgets given to principals, CPS taps ‘reserves’

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Last summer in the midst of teacher contract negotiations and as they prepared to undertake massive school closings, CPS leaders said they were using one-time reserves to fill a budget deficit and were completely out of money.

But on Wednesday, district officials said they will once again use one-time reserves to fill a budget deficit projected to be close to $1 billion. District officials made this announcement as they were releasing school budgets to principals.

CPS is facing a substantial budget deficit because it must contribute $612 million to pension funds, a $400 million increase from last year. Officials were hoping to spread those payments over a longer period of time, but last week state legislators didn’t approve a bill that would have given the district a pension holiday.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that the new reserves will be created by the county making property tax payments on time again this year. Carroll said the district also might garner some savings from the state keeping current with payments.

However, identifying the county payments as extra money is a direct contradiction to earlier statements. The annual audit, released in January, showed a fund balance of $329 million—a fact critics immediately jumped on accusing CPS of being dishonest by crying poverty and then ending up with money in the bank.

At the time, CPS officials said last year’s one-time county property tax payment was not extra money, but had just been received earlier than expected and was already allocated. Carroll said the reason this year’s on time payments are considered reserves has to do with timing.

“We now expect to get the next round of county dollars by the end of FY13 – since we did not plan for those dollars in our FY13 budget as passed by the Board, they will be counted as reserves. Next year, they will actually be counted in that budget,” she said.

These new reserves are unlikely to make up the entire shortfall faced by the district. This predicament had principals nervous about their school budgets as they waited an unusually long time to receive them. School budgets are usually released in April or May so that principals can get a handle on how many teachers they can hire or how many they must lay off.

In announcing that principals were finally getting their budgets, CPS officials said they were doing their best to prevent students from feeling the impact of budget problems.

“The District is continuing to identify reductions in central office, operations and administrative spending in order to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” according to a press release.

But getting a handle on whether schools will feel the impact of the district’s deficit in their budgets is difficult. For the first time this year, CPS moved to per-student funding, rather than giving schools money for positions, which was done historically.

CPS officials say they are doing this to give principals more autonomy over their budgets. However, some worry that it is a way to cut school budgets without having to explicitly reduce the number of teachers and raise class sizes. Also, it could incentivize laying off veteran, more expensive teachers and replacing them with less expensive ones.

Principals were summoned to late afternoon meetings Wednesday to receive their budgets so they have yet to report whether they will be getting more or less this year than last year. Carroll said she does not yet have any overall information on how many schools saw increase and decreases in their overall budget.

Carroll said schools are getting $4,429 for every kindergarten through third grader and $4,140 for every four every fourth through eighth grader. High schools are getting $5,029 for each student. Schools will still get the additional money for low-income, special education and bilingual students based on the complicated formula that has always been used.

Up until last year, CPS ran a per pupil budgeting pilot program. At the time, the per-pupil rate was based on the student population of the school. Schools with less than 300 students got $6,969 per pupil, whereas those with between 451 and 900 students got $5,077. The per student rates this year are similar to the old rates for larger schools.