Take 5: Budgets delayed, theft arrests, cutting Holocaust history

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education budget jar

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Anxiously awaiting their school budgets, principals received a letter  on Wednesday saying they will get them… sometime later. The letter from interim CEO Jesse Ruiz says that the district won’t release budgets until after Springfield takes some sort of action. With a projected $1.1 billion deficit, whatever the district could hand out now would be a “doomsday” budget and would basically freak people out.

“This letter is to let you know that while we continue to work on individual school budgets for next school year, we do not think it is productive or in the best interest of our school communities to release school budgets that will drastically impact our classrooms if Springfield does not take action,” according to the letter.

Last year, then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett proudly sent budgets out early April, noting that the early release would help principals make hires early and figure out if they needed to lay teachers off. Schools also got a bump of $250 extra per student. In years past, it was not that unusual for the district to wait until May to send out budgets but principals complained that was difficult to find good candidates for teaching positions because they had already been hired by suburban districts.

CPS is in the midst of increasingly tense negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union.

2. Junk-level debt … It’s been a tough week financially for CPS — and Chicago in general. On Wednesday, just a day after dropping the city’s bond rating to junk status, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the district’s $6.2 billion general obligation debt to the same category.

The ratings company indicated the new Ba3 rating for CPS reflects “increased strain on the district’s precarious financial position” in view of last week’s Illinois Supreme Court decision overturning state pension reform, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business. It also placed the district on watch, “meaning that further downgrades in the coming months are likely.”

The drop doesn’t trigger any new payments to financial institutions, the Sun-Times notes, “but the worsening of CPS’ ratings could potentially affect negotiations the district has entered into with several banks over those ‘swap’ termination fees.”  Certain borrowing costs could also go up as a result, the Tribune reports. Two weeks ago the district announced it would seek $113 million in bond money for next year’s capital budget — the smallest amount in decades.

3. Charges finally filed… It has been five months now since the CPS inspector general released his annual report outlining the massive theft of $870,000 allegedly orchestrated by a high school business manager. On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that the following people were charged: Jermaine Robinson, 36, of Chicago; Sidney Bradley, 46, of Chicago; Jonathan McKinney, 38, of Chicago; Albert Bennett, 49, of Carpentersville; and Paul Simmons, 55, of Calumet City, according to Cook County court records. Bradley, Bennett and Simmons are connected to companies that were banned from doing business with CPS at last month’s board meeting.

Employee records show that Robinson worked at Gage Park High School from at least 2009 to 2012. In 2012, he made $104,000. In the 2013 employee roster, he shows up as a 0.5 (half-time) position at both Clark and Gage Park, with an annual salary of $109,168.

According to the inspector general’s report, the scheme had many tentacles, but most of the theft was carried out by engineering payment to a number of companies for more than $700,000 in goods and services that were never delivered to the schools. The CPS employee in question is accused of receiving at least $100,000 in kickbacks from one of the deals, according to the inspector general report.

4. Cutting electives … Are schools cutting back electives in order to offer more college and ACT prep courses? That’s the implication from an interesting DNAinfo story about the decision to cut a popular Holocaust history course at Lake View High School. Rosa Lamb, who teaches the class, says “it’s mostly because we’re cutting down electives in general to make sure we focus on things like ACT scores and college readiness.”

Ross learned of the decision a week after getting accepted into a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum program. The museum’s educational program coordinator told DNAinfo it’s a familiar story: “The challenge we’re seeing is time limitations are getting more and more restrictive because of the focus on standardized testing and Common Core. People don’t necessarily see how this content can perfectly align with the skills students are required to use and will be tested on.”

CPS says decisions to cut electives at Lake View “were influenced by student data and are the basis for final decisions on which classes to offer each year, which is left to the teachers.”

5. Teachers stressed out … A new survey from the American Federation of Teachers on working conditions for teachers finds that nearly three-quarters of teachers are often stressed out at work — and the biggest source of stress is having to adopt new initiatives without proper training or professional development. Teachers are far less enthusiastic about their professions now than they first started, and thirty percent say they’ve been bullied in the past year — with the biggest bully likely to be their administrator or supervisor.

The 80-question AFT survey was filled out by more than 30,000 educators and circulated via email and social media between April 21 and May 1. It was created  by both the AFT and the Badass Teachers Association, a group that the Washington Post describes as “aggressively fighting the use of student test scores to measure teacher quality, the rise of charter schools and other market-based education policies.”

The AFT acknowledges the survey wasn’t scientific, but the Post writes that the “results were startling enough that it has asked the U.S. Department of Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to follow up and conduct a valid survey to determine if there is a national problem of stressed-out teachers.”

Photo:Education budget/shutterstock.com

  • Rodney Estvan

    Interim Chief Executive Officer Ruiz’s letter could very
    well mean CPS schools will not see their budgets until sometime in July, and
    that is if a compromise budget can be achieved by the Illinois General Assembly
    without a full State government shut down. I think it would be safe for CPS to
    operate under the assumption that the ISBE approved budget will be no lower
    than last year and CPS is likely to receive at least $1.5 billion from the
    State if not more given Governor Rauner’s public position on school funding.

    CPS could easily put out budgets to schools using a flat
    state funding assumption and have schools begin to implement the cuts along
    with layoff notices that will be necessary to keep the doors open. If a miracle
    happens and funding is increased beyond the FY 15 level there are plenty of
    places for unencumbered property tax dollars to be moved to including to
    special education services. We are heading for a nightmare folks and it is one
    that those of us old enough to recall the CPS FY 1981 budget will be familiar with.
    It’s incredibly sad, but it is better to prepare for the worse than just sit
    back and wait for the axe to fall.