Take 5: High borrowing cost, lower PARCC scores, processed school lunches

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A day after CPS CEO Forrest Claypool announced $75 million in cuts to school budgets by the end of June, the district sold $725 million in bonds to help with cash flow.

Photo by Max Herman

A day after CPS CEO Forrest Claypool announced $75 million in cuts to school budgets by the end of June, the district sold $725 million in bonds to help with cash flow.

With no labor contract in hand and threats of bankruptcy or a state takeover hanging overhead, Chicago Public Schools finally issued $725 million in bond debt on Wednesday — but it came at a high price. The cash-strapped district will pay skittish investors an 8.5-percent interest rate over 28 years, up from the 7.75 rate that was quoted on an $875 million sale it had planned to make last week. The higher interest rate for its junk-bond-grade offerings will cost the district tens of millions of dollars more in interest payments.

Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation told the Sun-Times the high interest rate comes in a “low-interest rate environment.” The state of Illinois recently got a rate of 4.27 percent. The Tribune reports that “no U.S. municipality in recent history has sold a bond issue as large as the district did Wednesday with such low marks from the major debt rating agencies” — that is, expect for Puerto Rico, where there also are calls for bankruptcy.

In a statement, CPS officials said the bond sales, coupled with another round of cuts announced Tuesday, “will produce sufficient proceeds to mitigate our cash flow challenges through the end of the fiscal year.”

Meanwhile, City Hall insiders are accusing Gov. Bruce Rauner of trying to sabotage the bond sale with his repeated calls for bankruptcy and a state takeover. In light of all that talk, Chicago Tonight examines what state control has looked like for the North Chicago School District. The news program notes that there is no national consensus on whether school districts are better off under local versus state control. The Washington Post also has a look at the growing number of Republican-led efforts in others states to seize control of struggling urban districts.

Finally, the Chicago Teachers Union is planning a downtown rally this afternoon to protest the district’s latest plans to cut costs. On that note, a Tribune survey found that the teachers union has “triple the public support of Emanuel” in the debate over how to improve the city’s public schools. That level of support is similar to what the CTU had when it went on strike in 2012.

2. Lower PARCC scores on computers … Education Week reports that students who took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) on a computer last school year tended to score lower than those who took the test on paper.

According to EdWeek, lower scores were “most pronounced” for computer-test takers at all levels in English and for older students in math — raising questions about the validity of those results.

Though results weren’t available from every state that administered the PARCC, EdWeek pointed to Illinois data as an example: 43 percent of students who took the English language arts exam on paper were deemed proficient or higher, while 36 percent of those who took the test on a computer scored proficient or higher.

About three quarters of Illinois students took the PARCC on a computer. That includes CPS students in 6th through 8th grade, plus high school students.

PARCC’s head of assessment told EdWeek that the pattern of lower scores for computer-test takers existed “on average, but that doesn’t mean it occurred in every state, school, and district on every one of the tests.” Some of the score differences “may be explained by students’ familiarity with the computer-delivery system,” he added. But PARCC officials are leaving it up to school districts and states to decide whether they need to adjust scores to account for students who may have been disadvantaged by how the test was given.

3. Processed school lunches … Despite school food nutrition standards deemed “overly strict” by Washington lawmakers, WBEZ once again found highly processed chicken patties, cheeseburgers and pizza to be the most common meals served in CPS lunchrooms. And their ingredients typically include artificial flavors, sweeteners, refined sugars, preservatives and chemicals not used in home cooking.

Dietician and author Dawn Jackson Blatner says these foods are “definitely not something that should be an everyday occasion for anybody of any age.” In December, students at Roosevelt High School brought attention to poor food quality by boycotting school lunches for a day. Last month, CPS officials said they’d met with Roosevelt students and others in an attempt to improve the taste of school food, saying much of students’ discontent stemmed from the lack of salt.

While Chicago schools do some fresh cooking, a district rule prevents salt from being added to dishes, leaving more room for salt in processed foods. Advocates say school kitchens would need appropriate equipment and trained cooks to cook healthier meals — a difficult task for a cash-strapped district. A recent Pew study estimated that $200 million would be needed to prepare school kitchens throughout the state; federal funds allocated for such improvements add up to only $30 million.

4. Upcoming LSC elections … In the lead up to Local School Council elections later this spring, DNAinfo ponders whether the ouster of popular principals by LSCs in recent weeks could translate to renewed interest in serving on school councils. For example, principals recently were let go from Edison Regional Gifted Center in Albany Park and Franklin Fine Arts Center in Old Town — moves that “blindsided” some parents. And on the Far Southeast Side, parents and students are rallying to stop the LSC from firing the principal at Washington High School.

Reporter Patty Wetli points out that: “If LSCs appear to be toothless in the face of policies such as per-pupil budgeting, standardized testing or teacher evaluations, they do still wield the power of choosing a school’s top administrator, and then determining whether to renew a principal’s contract or not.”

As Catalyst has reported, there was great enthusiasm around the first LSC elections in 1989 when 17,000 people ran for 5,400 seats. But when foundation funding ran out, training dried up and support from the business community waned, interest in the elections subsided. In 2014, DNAinfo points out, the deadline to nominate LSC candidates had to be extended because 86 schools didn’t attract a single parent. LSC elections will be held April 13 for elementary schools and April 14 for high schools. Nomination forms, due March 4, are available here.

5. Fewer absences for Latinos … The Chicago Tribune reports that fewer Latino students are missing school days around the holidays because their families are cutting back on extended winter vacations that, in the past, often would last a month. Several years ago, about 10 to 15 percent of Latino students at Community High School in West Chicago asked for extra time off from school so they could travel to Mexico to visit with relatives and celebrate holiday traditions. This year, only a handful of students at that school asked for time off, and other Chicago-area schools have seen similar decreases.

That’s mainly because more Latino parents were raised and educated in the United States and understand the importance of attendance for keeping pace with coursework and meeting graduation requirements, school officials say. “In this age of accountability, it’s important that every kid has a chance to show what he or she has learned,” says Jose Lara, a former principal at Clearview Elementary in Waukegan. “If they’re not at school, nobody can help them.”

One final note … The Faculty Council for the City Colleges of Chicago planned to deliver a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Cheryl Hyman to the system’s Board of Trustees on Thursday. The council, which represents full-time faculty across the seven colleges, is calling for a new chancellor who is “responsive to student and faculty concerns” and “comes from an educational background.”

Hyman, whose contract expires in June, is a former ComEd executive. Faculty say Hyman has ignored their requests to show data on the outcomes of her City Colleges reinvention plan and to hold town hall meetings with students and staff.

  • PAT MACK

    So these BONDS are ‘heavily discounted’ to bring yield to insane8.5%……??? Who holds/invest in dysfunctional Gov’t units?? Own Pension Funds??