Conversations with teachers: Budgets

Print More
Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street College Prep, talks

For teachers, the decisions the district makes about spending priorities are front and center in their day-to-day lives. When budgets are cut, when their colleagues are laid off, when a new initiative kicks off, it is teachers who end up navigating to make up for cuts, making do because a colleague is gone and implementing the latest “new thing.”

So last year, when CPS moved to a new per-pupil funding system and drastically slashed budgets, teachers felt the impact. The district restored some cuts this year, but teachers insist they will still have to cope with the aftershocks.

Each of the teachers who participated in Catalyst Chicago’s recent roundtable discussion had different perspectives on spending and the budget. Participants were Monty Adams, a science teacher at Latino Youth High School, an alternative charter school; Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street Charter College Prep; Kris Himebaugh, an English teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate at Orr High, a turnaround school managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership; Hen Kennedy, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary; and Amy Rosenwasser, a long-time special education teacher who now teaches fifth grade at Pritzker Elementary School.

Adams and Cordes work at charter schools; Adams’ charter is for dropouts, while Cordes’ school attracts middle-of-the-road to high-achieving students. A debate is still simmering on charter funding and whether charters receive more money than traditional schools; Cordes said his understanding is that charter schools receive less, while Adams is convinced there is parity.

Meanwhile, Himebaugh at Orr has experienced the worst of the budget cuts. Orr fell from an enrollment of more than 675 students and a budget of $8.8 million in the 2012-2013 school year to a projected 561 students and a budget of $5.8 million this year.  

The two elementary school teachers, Kennedy at Von Linne and Rosenwasser at Pritzker, are at relatively stable schools. Linne, a neighborhood school in Avondale, saw its budget rise by $100,000 compared to last year.

Pritzker, which has neighborhood-based and selective programs as well as a fine arts program, is projected to have about 40 more students this year and a budget of about $200,000 more.

Here’s what our roundtable had to say:

Kris Himebaugh, turning to Jamie Cordes from Noble Street: So you get money per-pupil like we do. Do you get the same amount?

Cordes: No. We get less.

Monty Adams: I was on the state task force for charter school funding this past year and that’s one of those very dubious things. We met from September to February for many, many hours and that was kind of the argument–whether charter schools get less or more or the same. Unfortunately, it was like comparing apples with oranges. My assessment is that charter schools get about the same. The difference is that charter schools, or my charter school and most of the ones I have seen, don’t have libraries, science labs, all the textbooks. Charter schools don’t look like schools. Some of them [are housed in and] look like they’re in churches or something.

Cordes: We have science labs. English and reading teachers have classroom libraries that are updated. There isn’t space in our building for a separate library, but kids are reading independently.

Himebaugh: I feel Noble Street is the exception [among] charter schools. We had to hire another PE teacher (because of the new requirement that students take physical education daily). In the meantime, last year we lost our librarian because of the cuts. This year, partly because of the budget [cuts] and partly because of the new PE requirement, we lost art.

Amy Rosenwasser: But there’s a fine arts requirement. How do you meet that?

Himebaugh: Online. Yup.  Art and music. We lost both [teachers].

Rossenwasser: In order to have gym?

Himebaugh: I don’t know if it’s specifically in order to have gym. I know we also use extra money for extra security.

Catalyst: What does art online look like?

Himebaugh: I have no idea.  It’s what’s going to happen this year.

Adams: I used to teach music online and the sad thing is we’d try to have discussions about the music, and I would have some students who were really interested. But they had nobody to discuss it with.

Himebaugh: We will offer band and TV production as fine arts programs.

One positive thing that came out of the budget cuts is that they required our principal to release the reins a little bit. In the past, when AUSL took over, we were so micromanaged. Now teachers have had to step up and take more leadership roles. That’s one positive thing.

Cordes: There are still things I want in my classroom that we can’t afford, and there are still basics that aren’t in place. In terms of budget, there are some things teachers say, I ordered this, I got approved for it last year, but I didn’t get approved this year. In terms of major staffing positions, I am not really aware of how cuts are impacting things.

Rossenwasser: Because our school is in Wicker Park, in the past we have had a tremendous amount rental income. For movies, they rent out a parking lot. They rent out the gym. There are a couple of churches there.  The Pritzker Foundation does provide some funding for after-school programs. They fund a big subsidy for eighth-graders to go to Washington, D.C. We have more sources of income even than other school in that neighborhood.

Rosenwasser: The thing that bothers me the most about [student-based] budgets, if you listen to Rahm [Emanuel] or BBB talk, it’s that it is the principals’ choice–they have all this money and they choose how to use it.

Hen Kennedy: It is like choosing to use a pencil or a pen to write your essay. You’re still going to have to write the essay.

Rosenwasser: If I only have $100 and I need to buy these things and pay my rent, maybe I am not buying all the food because I have to pay all my rent. That’s the most ridiculous thing they could possibly say and they say a lot of ridiculous things. But when I hear that, I think, “How can you legitimately say that and look at yourselves in the mirror each night?”

Rosenwasser: I think people who don’t have kids in the school system believe that [it is the principal’s choice]. The schools only have x-amount of money, and they can have a classroom of 50 kids or get rid of the music and art teacher.

Adams: In several schools, I’ve experienced the situation where they had plenty of money to invest in new stuff in the buildings or put in a courtyard or something, but at the expense of firing a couple of teachers.

Himebaugh: I knew it was bad last year when I walked into my classroom and there were 40 desks. So I am hoping when I walk in this year there will only be 30. Class size was definitely an issue at our school, at Orr. In fact, I am the union rep also. We went through the union’s class size committee, but we never got more teachers.

Cordes: I have probably about 28 or 30 on average. We are pretty limited in space as well, so it’s been pretty consistent, I’d say. They definitely try to fill those desks. But I can’t fit 40 desks in my room.

Adams: Well, the more desks they fill the more money it is for charter schoola.

Kennedy: In regular CPS schools too.