Cutting begins, principals told hands off special ed

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Kristine Mayle from Chicago Teachers Union speaks out against special ed cuts at an August rally in downtown Chicago.

Photo by Max Herman

Kristine Mayle from Chicago Teachers Union speaks out against special ed cuts at an August rally in downtown Chicago.

Principals were poring over their budgets on Tuesday after Chicago Public Schools officials directed them to make “unprecedented” mid-year cuts.

CPS officials reduced funds that are given to district-run schools based on enrollment by about $69 million. But they’ll feel only about $26 million of those cuts because the district redirected to schools federal funds that would normally pay for programs run by Central Office. It also gave principals remaining state “carryover” funds that schools hadn’t spent last year.

District officials said they allocated about three-quarters of that holdover money to principals in July, and the rest today, but didn’t explain why there had been a delay. Last school year, principals got their remaining balance in December.

Principals are being asked not to lay off special education teachers or aides and to avoid cutting classroom teachers. They also were encouraged to close vacancies and to move money between accounts to cover their personnel costs. Any layoff notices would go out on Feb. 29.

Schools losing the highest proportion of their budgets tended to be located in more affluent neighborhoods or have a selective-enrollment  program. With a cut of 3.5 percent — $218,000 — Northside College Prep, a selective-enrollment high school in North Park, is losing the largest proportion of its budget.

A few dozen schools are actually gaining money overall, mostly because they’d stashed away a higher proportion of their state carryover funds or were receiving more supplemental funds to help low-income students. (See a school-by-school list of cuts here.)

Ongoing negotiations

District officials say the cuts became necessary after the Chicago Teachers Union rejected a contract offer last week. The cuts are needed, officials said, to ease cash-flow problems and reduce next year’s deficit. Last week, the district issued $725 million in bonds at a high interest rate to help cover costs through the end of June.

“Our hope is that we will be able to reach an agreement with the CTU, which will allow us to roll back these personnel reductions before we have to give notice to employees at the end of this month,” CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said in a statement.

But CTU officials said the terms of the latest contract offer wouldn’t have impacted the current school year, so mid-year budget cuts were “unnecessary and completely retaliatory, and not at all evident of some urgent crisis in our schools.”

Union and district officials are talking daily and have a formal meeting scheduled for later this week.

Details of the board’s latest offer, which district officials say could still be the “foundation” of a deal, were provided to principals at meetings on Tuesday. The offer included a phasing out of the so-called “pension pickup,” in which the district contributes 7 percent of the 9 percent teachers are required to pay into their pensions, as well as higher health-care costs. These losses would be somewhat offset by modest salary increases in each of the next three school years.

District officials say that even with the pension and health care changes, teachers would come out slightly ahead.

Principals react

Meanwhile, principals were working to spare core functions.

In Lincoln Square, Amundsen High School Principal Anna Pavichevich has to eliminate just under $134,000 from her budget.

She says she’ll be able to cover that gap with the approximately $300,000 she saved after her Local School Council and school staff asked her to be financially conservative this year in case of “difficulties down the road.”

As a result, she won’t have to lay off any staff or cut educational programs. But the specter of future financial challenges at the district — absent pension or school funding reform at the state level — still looms large.

“We’re going to use this as a foundation for when we start planning for the future,” she said. “The bigger challenge is less today than what’s coming down the road.”

At Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, Principal Chad Adams is losing about $52,000 after adjustments. But he says after slashing his budget in increments over the last three years, it’s “getting to the point that the cuts aren’t that deep because there isn’t much left to cut.”

“There are less and less people left to do the work outside the classroom,” he says. “That frustrates teachers, they want that support.”

Principal Carolyn Jones at Bass Elementary in Englewood is losing a total of $24,000. While she’s been able to fill budget gaps in the past with contingency funds, she says this time around that is not an option. She doesn’t want to cut any teachers, so she’s hoping she can cover the loss with small unspent sums across her budget.

Charters and privately run alternative schools will find out how much they are losing on Wednesday. Officials said a school-by-school breakdown wouldn’t be available until then, but have said charters will see reductions of just under $14 million, and they can apply to the district for about $7 million in federal funds to offset losses.

Kevin Hooper, who manages finances for Erie Elementary Charter School in West Town, says charters are expecting to lose just over 4 percent of the funds they’d normally get, based on enrollment, about the same as district-run schools. For his school, it’s likely to total about $80,000, he says, though he’s not sure how much federal money the school will be eligible to apply for.

“It’s really a guessing game,” Hooper said.

State funding still a priority

In recent days, Claypool has continued to stress that if the state provided CPS with adequate funding, it wouldn’t have to make these cuts.

During a forum Monday evening at Blaine Elementary in Lakeview, Claypool cast the pension crisis as a civil rights issue that is having a disproportionately negative impact on poor black and Latino children in CPS.

He also hinted at the possibility of filing a lawsuit over the funding inequity.

“First we want to exhaust the political options we have. …. But we will use every tool at our disposal to protect our kids,” he said. “We will not go down without a fight, and we will use every single option we have, whether that’s political, legal, moral. This is a fight we have to take to the state.”

Asked about the possibility of a lawsuit, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said: “We’re pushing to correct this injustice, and we’re working with legislative leaders to reach a solution, which could move much more quickly in the immediate future. We reserve all options to protect our kids.”

Catalyst reporter Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.

  • Concerned Parent

    What would be the impact to the CTPF with teachers who are retirement age as they will get a lump sum payment equal to $1500 per year of
    service, if they submit request to retire by May? (Example, a
    teacher with 20 years of service would earn a lump sum of $30,000.)

  • Concerned Parent

    If cuts postponed, do charters not get penalized as this is a CTU issue?

    • Kalyn Belsha

      CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has said they’d like to reverse the cuts if a deal is reached, and charter folks told us yesterday they were advocating to receive their full fourth-quarter payment in April if cuts are rolled back.

  • Concerned Parent

    Our network chief early last week told our principal all network principals to spend all our school’s money as Mr. Claypool was going to take it all away.

  • Bill Colson

    I’ve talked to teachers from several schools who say they are led to expect that PSRPs will bear the brunt of any layoffs. Their numbers have already been cut to the bone in previous budget slashes, so many are currently doing the work previously done by two or three. In addition, they are the lowest paid, with the fewest benefits, on the staff. As a recently retired teacher, I know that the clerks and other non-teaching staff are the backbone of school operations, without whom teachers and administrators cannot function efficiently or effectively.