$5.8 billion schools budget gets final stamp of approval

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Criticism from watchdog groups aside, School Board members on Wednesday unanimously approved a $5.8 billion budget while conceding that it was problematic to use a one-time accounting maneuver to erase a deficit.

The Civic Federation and Access Living, two groups that analyze the budget, did not support the budget’s approval and slammed the maneuver, which allows the district to include property tax revenue that typically would count for the 2016 fiscal year in 2015 instead. 

Using this maneuver and adding in reserve cash gives CPS about $916 million in one-time money to balance the budget and funnel an additional $250 per student to schools.

Board member Henry Bienen said that he and his colleagues realize that the 2015 budget is a “stop gap budget. …It is being done in the absence of real [funding] reform.” Board President David Vitale said the board moved forward because it couldn’t justify not using the maneuver and then cutting school budgets, citing the possibility of something happening to change the district’s fiscal situation next year. “We all approach it with the interest of our children in mind,” he said.

District leaders and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have been accused of using the maneuver to avoid making difficult financial decisions in an election year.

Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro admitted that the maneuver does little to solve the problem long-term, with state funding down and pension payments due after a pension “holiday” expired.

Access Living’s Rod Estvan told the board it should pursue a property tax cap increase.  “This is not a popular issue,” he said, noting his neighbors want to lynch him for bringing it up. “We need to begin to have that discussion.”

Simeon’s electrician program and other cuts

Despite the additional money given to schools, speakers at the meeting reiterated complaints about budget cuts. Under student-based budgeting, schools that lose enrollment lose money, and principals and local school councils, instead of district officials, must make decisions about what programs and positions to keep and which to drop. 

One example is the electrician program at Simeon High, reportedly the last electrician program in the city. Chief of Networks Denise Little said it was cut because there was little interest in the program and few students earned credentials, prompting an angry response from Ald. Howard Brookins (21st Ward) and Michael Brunson, Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary. They said that there should be some comprehensive central decision making process when it comes to cutting or putting in place vocational programs.

“These decisions should not be made on the school level,” said Brookins. He noted that Simeon still has two barber classes and that electricians have the potential to earn far more money than barbers.

Brunson added that he believes that the city’s violence is connected to poverty and joblessness, noting that electrician jobs pay well and that getting young people into such jobs could help solve the problem.

Vitale said he plans to ask for a briefing on the district’s career and technical education programs.

Another recurring theme was charter funding vs. funding for traditional schools. Board member Andrea Zopp asked Ostro to explain that money follows students and that much of the issue has to do with enrollment. (Yet charters are getting other increases, in addition to the $250 per student, Catalyst found, with the district’s goal of making charter funding equitable with funding to district schools.)

Roberta Salas, whose children attend Murphy Elementary, said that this year’s increase didn’t make up for the money the school lost last year. Enrollment has been stable in the past three years, yet Murphy lost $600,000 last year while receiving only a $150,000 increase this year. She said her school is still struggling to come up for money for fine arts teachers.

“We don’t have money to fund our wonderful and vibrant neighborhood school,” she said.

But INCS executive director Andrew Broy said that it makes complete sense that charter schools, which are getting more students, are also getting more money.

“This is not about disinvesting in one school over the other,” Broy said. “This is not about pitting one school against the other. We think the policy prioritizes parent demand. Student based budgeting puts decision making where it should be.”