Take 5: Budget passes, discipline bill signed, principal independence

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Board President Frank Clark presided over his first School Board meeting on Wednesday. He and the six other board members voted in favor of a $5.7 billion operating budget that relies on as-of-yet-unpromised aid from Springfield.

Photo by Max Herman

Board President Frank Clark presided over his first School Board meeting on Wednesday. He and the six other board members voted in favor of a $5.7 billion operating budget that relies on as-of-yet-unpromised aid from Springfield.

The CPS Board of Education unanimously passed the district’s $5.7 billion operating budget Wednesday, despite the fact it relies on $480 million in state aid that legislators have yet to agree to.

“There is no question that the budget approved today is not the budget we want for our schools this year, but it does reflect the district’s extremely challenging financial situation in the absence of pension reform and sufficient state education funding,” CEO Forrest Claypool said in a news release.

The Civic Federation, a financial watchdog, has opposed the budget, noting it is unbalanced and “yet another financially risky, short-sighted proposal that fails to provide any reassurance that Chicago Public Schools has a plan for emerging from its perpetual financial crisis.”

The proposed budget changed little after three public hearings, with minor adjustments to account for some restored special education positions, 34 schools that did not want to shift their start times and a phase out of the district’s 7-percent pension pickup for non-union employees. The Chicago Teachers Union has been  adamant about retaining that pickup.

The School Board also approved a $1 billion borrowing plan Wednesday outlined by chief financial officer Ginger Ostro, who said the money would be used for capital projects, restructuring old debt and ending swap deals — eating up most of the $1.2 billion the board gave the district permission to borrow in total.

Earlier this week, a City Club of Chicago panel discussed the possibility of CPS declaring bankruptcy, though George Panagakisa Chicago-based attorney who specializes in the matter, says the district is many steps away from filing, even if state law were to amended to make bankruptcy possible. CPS would have to prove it’s truly out of money, develop a plan and talk to its creditors, a process that would likely take over a year.

Panagakis said filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy could be a “last-ditch effort” to prompt reform, but Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz said it was “irresponsible” to even talk about bankruptcy. Former CEO Paul Vallas said bankruptcy would lead to lawsuits — and likely a teachers strike. Such a move would destabilize the district and put it in a “financial death spiral,” he said, due to declining enrollment. “Who wants to send their kids to a bankrupt school system?” he asked.

2. New school discipline law … Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed into law SB100, which seeks to reduce the excessive use of punitive discipline practices in schools. The new law severely limits the use of suspensions and expulsions — disciplinary actions that data has long shown disproportionately impact black students. In addition, SB100 also prohibits the use of zero-tolerance policies and bans the use of disciplinary fines and fees. The student group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) lobbied hard for the bill, calling it “perhaps the most aggressive and comprehensive effort ever made by a state to address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’” according to a story in Education Week.

For years Catalyst has been writing about how black boys in particular are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. In the June 2009 issue, of Catalyst In Depth  we reported that nearly one of every four black male students had been suspended at least once in the previous year — a rate that was twice as high as the district average.

On a related note, a new analysis of federal discipline data in southern states also found a disproportionate impact of suspension and expulsion practices on black students. The Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania focused on 13 states that accounted for more than half of all of these disciplinary actions against black students nationwide.

“While black students represented just under a quarter of public school students in these states, they made up nearly half of all suspensions and expulsions,” according to a New York Times story. In some districts, the gaps were even more striking, the Times notes. In 132 southern school districts, black students were suspended at rates five times their representation in the student population.

3. Independent principals … CPS officials announced this week they’d chosen 28 principals for the Independent Schools Principal program, which gives good school leaders freedom from red tape in running their schools and managing their finances. In order to apply, principals had to have been in their role for at least three years and achieved “proficient” or “distinguished” ratings in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years. A total of 90 applied.

The chosen principals include 21 leaders from elementary schools and seven from high schools: Chavez, Skinner, Healy, South Loop, Keller, Ariel, Moos, Burnham, Disney, Disney II, Prieto, Edgebrook, Zapata, Peck, Lloyd, Dore, Kinzie, Lenart, Perez, Haines, and Carson elementary schools; and Brooks, Marshall, Lincoln Park, Payton, Young, Jones and Juarez high schools.

Thirteen of the chosen principals come from schools that serve disproportionately more white and affluent students than the district in general. At these schools, less than 70 percent of students are considered low-income and at least 15 percent of students are white, according to CPS data from the 2014-2015 school year.

Nine of the principals come out of the Chicago Principals Fellowship, a professional development program that started last year through Northwestern University and already gave high performers some freedom from district meetings — including the now infamous and defunct SUPES trainings. (In an interview earlier this month, CPS chief education officer Janice Jackson had indicated to Catalyst that past fellows would make good candidates for the new ISP program.) This year’s 20 fellows were announced last week by the Chicago Public Education Fund, which is underwriting the program for a total of three years.

4. ACT writing scores fall … Illinois students tied for the highest composite ACT scores among the 13 states that administered the assessment statewide last year. But the Chicago Tribune reports on one troubling trend: average scores “barely budged in English, math, reading and science, while writing scores in Illinois and the nation dipped to the lowest in a decade.” And only 26 percent of Illinois graduates scored high enough on all four sections of the ACT to be considered college ready — the same percentage as a year earlier but two points below the national average.

CPS has not yet released its data on ACT scores. Last year, CPS students recorded composite scores of 18 points. The state’s composite scores are just under 21.

In a press release, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) explained that the national average is based “primarily on the scores of self-selected, college-bound students. In Illinois, every 11th-grader was required to take the ACT.”

Research shows that testing more than a college-bound population is associated with lower overall composite scores.” With the switch to the PARCC test, lSBE last year stopped requiring school districts to administer the ACT, although it still budgeted enough money to pay for the exam for districts that administered it.  All school districts opted in and “the state provided financial assistance to offer students free exams,” as we noted in our recent Then, Now, Next almanac post. “However, the current state budget crisis could put an end to that freebie.”

5. Procurement report … CPS officials released the results Wednesday of an independent review conducted by the consulting firm Accenture that found the district could improve its purchasing processes to better distinguish between companies that are the “sole” provider of a service — such as Advanced Placement exams — and “single” providers that are not the only company that can offer a service, but are chosen without a bidding process for economic or other reasons.

The review was ordered by Ruiz during his brief time as interim CEO — following news of a federal investigation into former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the no-bid $20 million contract with SUPES Academy for principal training that she promoted.

After comparing the district’s procurement process with other municipalities, universities and school districts — including New York City and Los Angeles — Accenture made six recommendations for improvement that CPS “generally agreed with,” including posting notifications of potential sole and single source contracts online in advance of board votes and working with the district’s lawyers to get clarity on what services are and are not biddable.

Accenture also recommended letting the review committee that evaluates these contracts cast secret ballots instead of open ones, “in order to protect committee members from any perceived pressure to vote a certain way.” CPS says it’s already adopted some of the recommendations and will be making more changes in the coming months.

A long read for the weekend … For anyone following the ongoing controversy about whether Dyett High School will reopen as a neighborhood school, we highly recommend this story written by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker about the closing of a public high school in Queens, N.Y. that was once the largest high school in the United States. In its final year as a school — after a three-year phase out — Jamaica High School served just 24 students, nearly all of whom were poor students of color. The school struggled to keep students, Cobb writes, after the rise of school choice and the elimination of attendance boundaries at New York City high schools.