Take 5: More budget cuts, PARCC investigation, charter unions

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Chicago Teachers Union members and their allies are planning a day of action on April 1 that could close schools for the day.

Photo by Max Herman

Chicago Teachers Union members and their allies are planning a day of action on April 1 that could close schools for the day.

Not too long ago Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool was saying the district had enough money to finish the school year in the black. Now he says, that’s not the case. On Wednesday, district officials told principals that CPS is “short of the necessary cash for the remainder of the school year” and blamed a $700 million pension payment that’s due this summer.

The district is now asking schools and networks to stop spending money — this comes after a series of budget reductions, including $26 million in midyear cuts at schools and three upcoming furlough days.

According to slides of a webinar for principals obtained by Catalyst, the district will “implement spending management controls to increase oversight and transparency into expenditures” in addition to new “fraud prevention controls to mitigate costly mistakes and fraud.” Network chiefs will now have to approve school-level purchases of $5,000 or more, and manual checks — which don’t follow standard procedures and are sometimes issued in emergencies — are no longer allowed.

Principals who squirreled money away in anticipation of midyear cuts told the Sun-Times they now feel foolish for being so frugal because those newly restricted funds could have been spent on supplies or staff or more services for students.

2. CTU “Day of Action” … Meanwhile, contract negotiations continue between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union, with the union expected to respond sometime today to a revised offer that both sides have been “back and forth” over. “We’re probably going to try to give [the district] something Thursday, in response to what they’ve come to us with,” CTU President Karen Lewis said during a conference for parent mentors earlier this week.

The union and its allies in labor and the social justice movements are separately planning an April 1 “day of action” to protest cuts at CPS, state universities and other public agencies. During a rally Wednesday afternoon, Lewis and leaders from other unions — including the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and AFSCME Council 31 — told supporters to withhold their labor on that day. The rally also served to relaunch the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Committee campaign, which aims, in part, to build public support for teachers in case of a strike.

While the April 1 plans are not yet complete, Lewis indicated the demonstration could close schools for the day and told parents to treat it like an extra holiday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Technically, the teachers can’t go on strike until mid-May, at the earliest. At the moment, a fact-finder is reviewing both sides’ positions and is set to make recommendations in mid-April.

3. PARCC investigation …. The Illinois State Board of Education has launched an investigation into 90 school districts, including CPS, to determine why they failed last school year to give at least 95 percent of students the PARCC, the state’s new standardized assessment.

About one in 10 CPS students eligible to take the test sat it out last year, with the highest opt-out rates at several selective-enrollment high schools and schools with a reputation for activism.

The state says it’s “legally required” to look into low participation rates, according to the letters, obtained through an open records request by the anti-testing group More than a Score. However, Cassie Creswell of More than a Score notes that other states with high opt-out rates have not announced investigations.

It’s expected that regional superintendents will collect evidence and testimony from school administrators, teachers, parents and, in some cases, students, and then report back to the state, which will determine a “course of action.”

The state also told the federal government that it would look into school staff who “improperly influenced a student to refuse to engage in a test,” possibly leading to disciplinary action, the Tribune reports.

It’s unclear what, if any, sanctions the state would take, but already the investigation has prompted backlash from superintendents and anti-testing advocates.The investigation notices were sent out shortly before PARCC testing began for this school year, and some people wondered whether the timing was meant to intimidate districts and parents, the Tribune reports.

Some superintendents mused that the state should have other priorities during a budget crisis and expressed doubt that the state would sanction them.

Because of the pushback last year, the state announced the PARCC exams would be shorter this year and that schools can administer them during one testing window, instead of two.

Related: It’s expected that about 85 percent of students across the state will take the test online this year, up from 75 percent last year.

4. Another charter union? … Teachers and staff at another Chicago charter school are moving toward forming a union. On Wednesday, nearly four dozen employees of Passages Charter School in Edgewater registered their intent to unionize, submitting documents to the National Labor Relations Board, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Passages is a highly rated and diverse elementary school operated by Asian Human Services, a non-profit organization that was started in the 1970s to provide services to Southeast Asian refugees.

In a press release, Passages employees said they are seeking to work more collaboratively with administration and want greater job stability. State data on certified teachers from last school year show that Passages on average pays its certified teachers significantly less than other charter schools do. Administrators for the charter school did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.

ChiACTS currently represents teachers and staff at 32 charter school campuses, a quarter of the city total. Most recently, employees at Urban Prep Academies’ three charter schools unionized and are negotiating their first contract.

5. Eliminating student loans … Northwestern University announced that starting next school year, it will become more affordable to lower-income students through measures to reduce student debt, according to the Tribune. Students who normally take out loans will instead receive grants and scholarships to help cover costs, and loan debt will be capped at $20,000.

The school also will increase financial assistance for undocumented high school graduates — they will now qualify for privately-funded Northwestern scholarships — and cover support expected from the state’s Monetary Award Program (MAP), which have been held up by Springfield’s budget stalemate.

“The ability for students of limited means to be able to graduate and not have debt hanging over their head just opens up so many doors that might not be open otherwise,” said Alison Segal, director of college access for Evanston Scholars, a nonprofit that helps students attend and finish college.

The university will provide nearly $160 million in aid, which officials say is a 55-percent increase from five years ago. Northwestern’s undergraduate tuition for this school year is close to $49,000, and that doesn’t include the additional $20,000 needed for room and board, books and other expenses. About half of current students qualify for financial aid.

  • Concerned Parent

    Prepare for CPS to cancel summer school. Though proposed for years, there was no reason to keep expensive networks open during the summer. Due to this lack of action as protecting network jobs was a priority, students who will be in great need of summer support will lose out; when closing networks for the summer months would have saved funds all along. And Claypool will continue get poor advice on this as he has on other actions. Does he know that yet?