Union claims massive cuts coming for schools, but no specifics from CPS

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The Chicago Teachers Union charged Thursday that school budgets for the coming school year are down between 10 percent and 25 percent compared to this year, and that new positions provided as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s signature longer school day initiative will likely be the first to be cut.

Teachers and other workers paid for with the “college-ready fund”—the name CPS gave to the pot of money designated for the extended school day—are especially vulnerable as principals make budget decisions. About $100 million was doled out to schools through the college-ready fund, and schools could use it for a host of improvements, from buying computers to hiring an art teacher. Some schools used the money to hire parents or community residents to monitor recess, which became mandatory when Emanuel lengthened the school day.

But rather than protecting the money–as CPS is doing with the extra money it provides for magnet and selective schools, for instance–the college-ready fund was incorporated into the CPS budget for basic instruction. The basic instruction money is being distributed on a per-pupil basis for the first time.  

One principal said he will no longer have the money for recess workers. “We will have minimal coverage for recess, so I anticipate injuries and lawsuits,” he said.

According to principals, schools with special programs fared better than neighborhood schools under the new budget plan. A power point obtained by Catalyst Chicago explains how the budgeting system works.

Union leader Jackson Potter said it is hard to get a handle on how many layoffs could result from budget cuts, especially because principals have been told not to talk about their budgets. But the number could be significant.

Potter said he’s heard that librarians and counselors are slated to be laid off, as well as numerous teachers.

“It is going to be pretty devastating,” he said. “We are hearing these doomsday scenarios everywhere.”

Board president David Vitale has acknowledged that school budgets are less than last year, but said the decrease was only a few percentage points on average. But CPS officials have so far declined to provide any specific information about how the budgets for the coming school year compare to this year.

In a statement, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the union’s allegations are disappointing and not accurate.

“CPS has cut more than $600 million from the central office, so we can preserve every precious dollar in the classroom for our children,” she said in the statement. “It is my hope that as we finish this school year and prepare to begin another that the CTU will work with us and can contribute to real solutions to the financial crisis facing our schools. Our students deserve no less.”

Most of the $600 million in cuts in central office predated the Rahm Emanuel administration and, in fact, the amount spent on central office staff increased this year.

CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said the school-level budgets are preliminary and the district doesn’t want to share any specifics until budgets are final. Yet, technically the budgets won’t be final until the board approves the entire district budget in late August. Well before then, CPS must publish budget information and hold hearings.

Quinn downplayed the decreases. “Every year there are increases and decreases in school budgets due to things like enrollment, number of students that are under the poverty line, etc.,” she said in an e-mail.

But principals say they were told at meetings led by top officials that their budgets are shrinking due to the district’s $600 million pension bill, which is driving a projected $1 billion budget deficit.

Plus, changes in enrollment or the number of poor students would not cause drastic shifts in school budgets. In fact, one North Side principal said that he is projected to get 40 more students, yet his budget did not increase at all.

Because veteran teachers eat up more of a school’s budget, one fear is that principals will have an incentive to lay them off to save money. With the new budgets, CPS is providing some additional money for 300 schools with a lot of veteran teachers; the money is not promised for future years.

One principal, whose teachers average 10 years of experience, said he isn’t getting any of the money–and though he values veterans, he can understand why schools might decide to hire less experienced, and thus less expensive, ones.

The principal is also thinking about taking in more students to his school, which has a waiting list of students outside the neighborhood who would like to attend.

“Other schools in my position might be tempted to cannibalize other schools,” he said.

On the 10th day of school in the fall, CPS will look at school enrollments and adjust budgets accordingly. Schools whose enrollments are lower than projected will have money taken from them and will likely have to lay off staff. (This adjustment historically has been done on the 20th day of school.)

Another principal said his budget is $1 million less than this year, yet he is projected to get about the same number of students.

“I’m cutting three assistants, a half-time teacher, and a full-time teacher,” he said. “I’m also increasing class sizes from 20 in primary to the max of 29.”

This year, CPS is now taking two-thirds of the payment schools receive for having cell phone towers on their property, leaving schools just a third of the money. About 99 schools have cell phone towers and, at this principal’s school, the payment previously gave him $48,000 that he could use at his discretion.

Several high schools staff have told the union that they are seeing significant decreases. For example, Taft is losing $3 million, Foreman High School $1.7 million and Kenwood $1.76 million.

Potter says these schools might be projected to get slightly fewer students, but nowhere near the level that would justify the budget cuts.