Budget details still in short supply

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CPS officials provided some details—though little new information–about next year’s budget on Wednesday afternoon, but have yet to release it. Sometime this evening, they say, it will be posted online.

The Board of Education will vote on the budget at its July 23 meeting, but officials did not announce any dates for public hearings on it. Once the actual budget is released, it will become clearer which schools will experience budget cuts and which departments the district will invest in most heavily. The $5.76 billion budget is slightly higher than last year’s $5.69 billion budget.

Most of the new spending touted by officials on Wednesday has already been announced, such as $250 more in per-pupil spending for each student, the hiring of 84 art teachers and 84 gym teachers (with surpluse TIF funds in a district with more than 500 schools) and five new International Baccalaureate programs. The district also announced that it will spend $1 million to expand the Safe Passage program, but did not give details on where workers will be stationed and why the decision was made.

CPS is cutting $55 million from administration and operations, the smallest cut in at least five years. Central office will lose 20 staff positions, and the other cuts will be made by such moves as reducing “training vendors.”

Officials had warned that a pending $634 million required contribution to the teacher’s pension fund would mean a $1 billion deficit. (On June 27, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund posted an announcement online that CPS had made a more than $585 million payment to the fund, completing its 2014 payment on time.)

Last year, CPS officials insisted that they were draining their reserves to zero and that they desperately needed pension reform in order to continue funding schools.

Technically, CPS’ expenditures next year are $870 million more than its revenues.

As previously announced, the district is avoiding making major budget cuts by using a budget maneuver that will extend the “revenue recognition period” for a property tax payment for 60 days, moving it from July 30 to September 1. Because the first installment of the property taxes usually arrives in August, this will allow the school district to count $650 million scheduled to come in August 2015 in the 2015 budget, rather than the 2016 budget.

In addition to the $650 million, Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro says that the district has some money in reserves to fill the $120 million hole and have another $150 million to put in savings.  “We have been fortunate in recent years that we got some extra money that there was no knowing we would get so we could not count it.”

Ostro said that this maneuver will only work once and that the district still has a structural deficit. She said the only way out is for pension reform. However, Ostro and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett admitted that the district has a history of finding one-time funding to save the day.

“We should worry about next time,” Byrd-Bennett said. “There isn’t another one-time thing that we can think of.”

Meanwhile, the Illinois State Board of Education released its own budget this week, after Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on the Legislature’s $33.7 billion spending plan.

 The state schools budget of nearly $10 billion – of which some $6.8 billion comes from the general fund – changes little from last year. Earlier this year, ISBE had asked the Legislature consider increasing the state’s appropriation by an additional $1 billion, but lawmakers kept spending on schools flat. 

 The budget includes an additional $17.2 million for assessments and $13.1 million for district interventions. ISBE had asked for increases in several categories, including early childhood, bilingual, and homeless education, but the state maintained spending at last year’s levels.