CPS uses creative accounting to find cash for schools

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If only we were all CPS, and every time we were short on cash, a pot of one-time, never-to-be-available-again money appeared that would get us over the hump.

CPS leaders announced Wednesday that, once again, they have found a way out of a budget nightmare and plan to increase basic per-pupil funding to schools by $250 per child–in all, about $70 million more than last year–while also paying the hefty teacher pension payment due this year.

According to the plan, the district will be able to recoup several hundred million dollars by extending the “revenue recognition period” for 60 days at the end of the next fiscal year, moving it from July 30 to September 1. That way, a property tax payment that typically comes to the district in August will count for FY 2015 instead of FY 2016.

School Board President David Vitale said this trick will only work once. “The downside is that someone might say we are avoiding the problem,” he said during a conference call Wednesday.

In each of the three years since Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected, CPS leaders have announced a hefty deficit and then eventually found one-time pots of money to fill the hole. 

Just two months ago, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett threatened doom if something was not done to ease the pension burden, which is $697 million this year. “In the absence of action from Springfield, this increase in pension costs will crowd out classroom spending, and we will see further cuts to school budgets,” she told them at the February board meeting.

Vitale said district leaders decided to use the accounting strategy to get more money to schools and “stay on the trajectory to keep children going.”

Emanuel also is up for re-election in February of 2015.   

In the past few years, as CPS leaders grappled with a looming teachers strike and the prospect of closing schools, officials waited for the district’s revenue picture to become clearer before giving principals their budgets.  Vitale said this year, leaders want to give principals their budgets in April, a common practice in the earlier years, so they could hire staff in a timely fashion.

For next year, the per-pupil allocation will be $4,390, up from $4,140 now. Schools get slightly more for students in kindergarten thru 3rd grade and for high school students.

Budget Director Ginger Ostro said the increase adds about $70 million to school budgets. Last year, CPS cut $80 million from schools.

The increase should be welcome news to parents who were gearing up for a fight to maintain their school’s budgets. Last year, they were up in arms when principals got their budgets in June, with steep cuts.

A coordinated group of parents, many of them representing schools in middle-class neighborhoods, came to the School Board meeting in February to beg the board not to cut any more.  

Wendy Katten, whose group, Raise Your Hand, just launched a petition drive for more money, said she sees the announcement as a victory. “It is a great start,” she said.

In addition to the basic per-pupil budget, schools get other pots of money for poor students, special education students and special programs. CPS officials did not give any specifics on how or whether these other line items will change in the upcoming budget.

This year, schools designated to take in students from closed schools were given extra money to help with the transition. Byrd-Bennett said schools won’t get that money in the coming year, but will be able to “keep the iPads and laptops” that were purchased to give those schools more resources.