Talking With Principals, Part 4: Money matters

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Principals Chad Adams of Sullivan High, Adam Parrott-Sheffer of Peterson Elementary, and Troy LaRaviere of Blaine Elementary talk about training and other matters in 2014. (Parrott-Sheffer is now a principal in Burr Ridge District 180.)

Photos by Michelle Kanaar

Principals Chad Adams of Sullivan High, Adam Parrott-Sheffer of Peterson Elementary, and Troy LaRaviere of Blaine Elementary talk about training and other matters in 2014. (Parrott-Sheffer is now a principal in Burr Ridge District 180.)

CPS has yet to release its official budget for next fiscal year, but principals have been grappling with their school-level allocations since April. In the last of four excerpts from a roundtable discussion hosted by Catalyst Chicago, Blaine Elementary Principal Troy LaRaviere, outgoing Peterson Elementary Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer and Sullivan High Principal Chad Adams share their views on the district’s per-pupil budgeting system, now in its second year, and the district’s claim that the system gives principals more “autonomy” in spending decisions.

Gresham Elementary Principal Diedrus Brown also participated in the roundtable but did not have much to share: Gresham is slated to become a turnaround school and she will not be at the helm next year.

The vote on next year’s budget was supposed to be held at the June board meeting, but has been delayed for unspecified reasons. According to state law, the budget must be published 30 days before the required public hearing. CPS’ fiscal year ends on June 31, but it is not unusual for the board to approve the budget in July or August.

Last year, officials made a dramatic shift in its system for allocating money and resources to schools: Instead of allowing schools to have a certain number of teachers based on enrollment, schools now receive a specific amount of money for each student. In addition, the overall amount allocated to schools was cut by $80 million.

CPS officials said that the new scheme would give principals more freedom that would offset the pain of budget cuts. But many principals said that, with scarce resources, the new system merely shifted the responsibility for bad decisions onto their plate, such as cutting an art teacher in order to afford a recess monitor. Plus, new requirements such as daily physical education are a drain on budgets.

For next year, officials announced a $250 increase per student, raising the per-pupil stipend to an average of about $4,390 from $4,140.

Catalyst: Are you being asked to buy specific books or specific programs?

Parrott-Sheffer: I’m not, but I have colleagues who had to meet with their network person and they were handed a list. I got to see it and it said, what level of Achieve 3000 are you buying? They’re being told how to spend their budget, whether they have the funds or resources.

Catalyst: What side of town does that principal work on?

Parrott-Sheffer: West-ish.

Catalyst: Some principals have said they are also being forced to get Compass Learning (Compass Learning and Achieve 300 are online education programs.)

LaRaviere: Compass Learning is the big company, and they have a program called Odyssey. We have Odyssey. It’s a big initial price, $25,000, and it’s like $4,000 a year. Nobody made me get it. My old principal, who I respect a lot, was using it. I went and saw a demo of it. I liked it. I still like it. It is not some miracle-working program. It has some good content that otherwise kids might not be exposed to. You can get an additional opportunity at home to expose them to some content and skills and practice. It is actually decently-designed instruction, not just practicing what you already learned. You can be introduced to new content through the program.

Parrott-Sheffer: it’s a good fit for you, but you made that decision. There’s other places where that decision is being made for you. If you’ve got a small school with 200 kids, that’s [taking all] your money.

The other issue is that you can’t buy [on your own]. Math curriculum, reading curriculum, are all on hold. It’s quite a maneuver to purchase anything, because in theory we’re moving to district-wide curriculum. It is unclear where they are in the process of that right now. [Not being able to purchase books] puts you behind the eight ball, unless you use non-school funds.

Adams: And we need to be careful of going down the district curriculum road. We went down this road a while back with [High School] Transformation. (High School Transformation was a 2010 initiative to have low-achieving high schools choose between a vetted list of curriculum.)

Catalyst: How are your projections for enrollment for next year?

Adams: Mine are way down. I think there was an over-projection when I started, so I think what I’m looking at now is probably the reality of what’s going to happen.

(Like most neighborhood high schools, Sullivan’s enrollment has fallen in recent years. Last year, Sullivan was projected to get 858 students but had enrolled only 708 by the 20th day audit of enrollment. Technically, schools that were underenrolled were supposed to be stripped of the money they received for students that did not show up. But CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett—perhaps sensing the mayhem such an action would cause—let the schools keep the extra money.)

LaRaviere: We will know in the fall, but it is about what we expected. We keep growing on one end, but we have to keep cutting on the other end because we don’t have space. So every time our kindergarten numbers rise, and they rise every year, we have to cut a preschool class. So we had seven preschools, and we’re down to three.

Catalyst: Chad, you come from a charter school. Tell us how the schools are different.

Adams: I thought I had a good shot at a charter, and could really make it happen. That charter is actually being closed – Chicago Talent Development. I went back to [traditional] public education because the charter world was hard in so many ways. The way that charters and neighborhood schools that are near each other interact is something that definitely needs to be looked at.

I have an UNO charter that is drawing students from [Sullivan]. Slowly but surely throughout the year, I got more and more kids from UNO because they didn’t want to have to wrap their arms around those families and work with those kids, despite their needs. That can be said about some other charters that are near me: Chicago Math and Science Academy. We don’t have the liberty of just kicking students out of school and having them never coming back. I do fear what some of the long-term effects on those children could be. I worry about the amount of trauma they’re being exposed to because of [being pushed out], and then landing at my school. I probably think about it more than anything because I was a part of it. I did the same damn thing that is being done to me.

LaRaviere: Wow …

Adams: But I quit, in the middle of the year. I couldn’t take the social injustice behind it.