One of the top good government groups in the city said Tuesday it couldn’t endorse Chicago Public Schools “overly optimistic” budget, while a key advocacy group for the disabled blasted the CPS budget for a lack of transparency on spending for some of its neediest students.
On the eve of the Board of Education’s vote on a budget the schools chief declared “balanced,” the Civic Federation called CPS’ $5.4 billion operating budget the opposite, sorely in need of long-term planning.
Federation president Laurence Msall said CPS must devise a public Plan B in case the Chicago Teachers Union ultimately refuses to give back $31 million on pensions or the state’s General Assembly and governor fail to agree on pension reform by January, costing CPS about $215 million in normal pension costs.
“They bought a little time,” Msall said by telephone. “This is a very expensive budget, at the mercy of the CTU on the concessions, at the mercy of the Legislature on what pension reform would look like and what the governor would accept — and then they still need everything to break right.”
Meanwhile, CPS is borrowing too heavily, at an estimated $35 million cost for $1.5 billion in short-term loans to replenish the district’s cash flow until March, when property tax revenue arrives, Msall said. And how can they seek $945 million in borrowing for capital projects — which the Board also will consider Wednesday — without any long-term capital improvement plan?
The proposed budget, released just a few weeks ago, is a small improvement from last year’s, especially since it tackles debt instead of “scoop and toss” practices that push it into the future, Msall said.
CEO Forrest Claypool will recommend the spending plan to the full Board of Education at Wednesday’s meeting, and it’s expected to pass. State law requires board approval before Sept. 1. Claypool said in an emailed statement that CPS does continue to “push for long-term education funding reform from the State of Illinois. Education funding reform will lay the groundwork for fiscal stability not just for Chicago’s schools, but for countless struggling districts around the state — and their students living in poverty.”
District spokeswoman Emily Bittner insisted still that “CPS’ revenues match expenditures, and expenditures are down $232 million from FY16.”
Both the Civic Federation and disabilities rights group Access Living denounced a lack of transparency. Msall called on the district to hold its public hearings during hours more accessible to the public.
Education policy analyst Rod Estvan found the changes to special education spending this year especially troubling — and nearly impossible to compare to last year.
Instead of assessing a school’s need and sending the correct number of special education teachers as it has in the past, CPS is now giving a lump sum of money to each principal to hire teachers directly. The money is based on what the school spent last year, a problem because many schools couldn’t make hires until after the start of the year. Schools also lost a flat 4 percent off their total money for children with disabilities, a pot of money that’s still up for grabs by schools that succeed in appealing.
“It’s putting the principals into a really terrible spot. They’re having to make decisions weighing general education against special education in some cases,” using discretionary or core instruction dollars to fund the legally required special education services, he said.
“We don’t know how many of the layoffs for the gen-ed teachers are driven by principals having to take money away from music, art, whatever and having to apply it to special ed,” Estvan said.
Bittner said late Tuesday that special ed spending at schools is on the rise, at $610 million compared to $607 million spent last year.
“As the leaders of their schools, principals are closest to the needs of their school communities and are best suited to ensuring those needs are met. The District is committed to supporting principals with additional training, administrative support and instructional resources, along with a robust appeals process,” she wrote in an email.
CPS massive budget, borrowing pass despite giant ‘ifs’
Chicago homeowners will see their property taxes rise thanks to unanimous votes Wednesday by the Board of Education — and possibly even greater cuts to schools if either of two big question marks in Chicago Public Schools’ budget get answered with a no.
All six of seven Board members present voted to approve $5.4 billion in operational spending, a $250 million property tax hike that pays directly into burgeoning teacher pensions, nearly $1 billion in borrowing for capital projects and $1.5 billion in short-term loans needed to pay bills through next spring’s tax season.
CTU Big Bargaining Team urges teachers to walk if no deal by Oct.
The Chicago Teachers Union’s Big Bargaining Team wants the union to walk off the job if a contract deal isn’t reached by October.
That’s according to the union’s latest contract bulletin, which is urging its members to prepare during the first weeks of school just in case.
CTU President Karen Lewis has said her members will report to work on the first day of school, but that they will not go another school year without a new contract to replace the one that expired on June 30, 2015.
“CTU members are so angry that many have said they’re ready to strike now before school is set to open,” read the Aug. 22 contract bulletin. “That anger is morally justified, but anger needs to be married with strategy in order to win the best possible outcome. After an entire summer of living on savings, after a summer with little contact with one another, after a summer away from students and families, our members are less secure and less united than we need to be.”
During contract negotiations, the union’s 40-strong Big Bargaining Team represents a variety of ages and of jobs that CTU members do, and the strong-willed group is the first line of approval on contract proposals. They unanimously rejected a January offer that Lewis herself considered “serious.”
But their recommendation to walk picket lines is just that. Union leadership has to file a 10-day strike notice with a state labor board before walking off the job, and the governing House of Delegates would have to vote to set a strike date. Members already voted overwhelmingly last December to authorize any strike.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, speaking at the Chicago Board of Education’s meeting on Wednesday, tried to strike a positive note on ongoing negotiations.
“Our hope now is to reach a final agreement with the CTU so that once school begins, our children can remain in the classroom where they belong. Our teachers work hard, which is why we are trying to give them the best raise we can, but we will continue to operate within the framework of what we can afford,” Claypool said. “We remain committed to putting our children first, and hope that the students who are so excited to return to class on September 6 will not see their school year disrupted by a strike.”
Meanwhile at schools, union members are supposed to gear up their ground game. School-based delegates have been asked to collect all personal cellphone information for their members and to schedule a meeting during the first week of classes. They’ll also receive strike readiness packets of information for parents and teachers.
“The CTU hopes to negotiate a fair contract without having to strike, but in order to bargain at our strongest, the union must be ready, willing and able to mobilize its power,” the union wrote. “All members should be thinking of parent outreach and ways to bring your school building together and ready to fight for a just contract that will move us closer to the schools our students deserve.”