CPS budgets for another bare-bones year

Written By Editorial Posted: 08/04/2014, 11:53am

Looks like it’ll be another year for the Chicago public schools to limp along, strait-jacketed by rising pension and personnel costs and constrained by limited revenue.

The school system on Wednesday released its proposed 2015 budget. Like the last several spending plans, the $5.8 billion operating budget proposes to fill a massive deficit with a new round of one-time fixes.

The result is survival, another bare-bones budget that spends just enough to get by but not enough to truly invest in a high-quality education at every school.

Over the last several years Chicago Public Schools leaders have made a habit of averting $1 billion annual deficits with one-time revenue infusions or accounting gimmicks. This year, it’s the latter; the district will shift the period when it brings in property tax revenue to count about $650 million of property tax revenue expected to be collected next August toward this fiscal year, a somewhat risky financial move. That does most of the work to erase CPS’ current $876 million deficit.

Every time CPS pulls off a miracle like this, doubters wonder if CPS is crying wolf. And while there is some element of truth to that, a look at the numbers shows a school system with a very real structural deficit — with fixed expenses that far exceed the revenue it can count on every year. Last year, that meant CPS had to cut deep into classroom funding. This year’s budget doesn’t make up for those losses. CPS proposes boosting school-based budgets, but mostly that just covers contractual salary increases.

CPS’ deficits aren’t a matter of simply overspending, though there is always waste to go after. Walk into any school, especially a school in which 30 kindergartners are packed into one room or a social worker comes by only twice a week, and you’ll see evidence of Chicago’s under-funded school system.

On Wednesday, the school district’s chief executive, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, pointed the finger of blame for its perennial budget woes at skyrocketing pension costs. After a three-year pension holiday, CPS’ pension costs went up $400 million last year, to $613 million. This year, the total bill for CPS is even higher, $634 million. Next year it could be as high as $704 million, according to CPS estimates.

The future offers more of the same unless state lawmakers finally cut CPS’ pension costs by passing a law that reduces benefits, as they did last December for teachers outside Chicago and state employees.

Pension reform will not solve all of CPS’ woes, and it’s a bitter pill for teachers to swallow. But it’s an essential reform for the long-term financial health of the school system and the pension fund itself.

This was supposed to be the year for CPS pension reform, but city efforts to reform its other employee pensions took precedence and negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union didn’t bear fruit.

The odds of reform before next February’s mayoral election are slim, particularly with CTU President Karen Lewis now flirting with a run.

But those political realities don’t lessen the on-the-ground realities.

CPS this year is proposing modest new spending in a few areas, including more for safe passage routes to schools, social/emotional training, 168 arts and physical education teachers and for five new International Baccalaureate elementary schools. That’s good news but it does nothing for the schools, particularly neighborhood ones, that lack art and PE teachers, social workers and computers. And it does nothing for schools struggling with overcrowded rooms. A recent analysis by the advocacy group Raise Your Hand found that 35 percent of kindergarten-through-second-grade students in 2014 were in homerooms with 29 or more students.

CPS will survive for another day. But shouldn’t we expect more?

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