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CPS warns of dramatic cutbacks to summer school programs

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, second from left, responds to a question about the Chicago Public Schools during a news conference in 2015. Pictured are from left, Frank Clark, president of the Chicago Board of Education, Emanuel, Janice Jackson, Chief Education Officer, and Forrest Claypool, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. (AP File Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Summer school for 17,450 Chicago Public School students could be scaled back dramatically if the Illinois General Assembly adjourns its spring session without providing pension relief to the nearly bankrupt school system.

The doomsday plan may also require central office administrators and network staffers who normally work through the month of July to take pay cuts or unpaid days off.

“Because of the budget crisis driven by the state’s discriminatory funding, CPS is being forced to seriously contemplate difficult reductions to summer school,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner was quoted as saying in an emailed statement in response to questions from the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Our priority will be to serve the most vulnerable students but, unfortunately, reducing summer school opportunities will set students’ progress back. To keep students engaged and on track, we’re also in conversations with sister agencies seeking additional summer supports for students.”

Sources said the “magnitude of the cuts” would depend on “what action Springfield takes.”

Last year, CPS provided four major summer school programs at a cost of $16.1 million.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed off on a school budget that assumes $480 million in pension help from Springfield. CPS has managed to make it through the school year, only after borrowing $775 million at sky-high interest rates and making several rounds of painful budget cuts.

A school funding bill approved by the state Senate this week would provide roughly $375 million in additional help for CPS.

But, the bill Downstate Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar claims will “attack poverty in the classroom” faces an uncertain future, both in the House and, more importantly, with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

At issue is the $676 million payment to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund due on June 30.

CPS has no choice but to make that payment in full, whether or not Springfield rides to the rescue.

To do otherwise would probably mean losing future access to the credit markets and slipping dangerously further into junk bond status — possibly dragging the city’s bond rating down with it.

But, after making that payment in full, CPS will have just $24 million left in the bank. That’s enough to cover just 1.5 days of payroll.

Since property tax revenues won’t start rolling in until early to mid-August, that means CPS would essentially be forced to operate “bone-dry” through the month of July.

That’s why summer school and summer staffing are being targeted.

Furlough days and pay cuts could also be in store for the roughly 1,000 central and network office staffers who normally work through the month of July.

Summer school cuts could be particularly devastating at a time when Chicago is already reeling from a spike in homicides and shootings and bracing for the traditional summer surge in street violence.

Summer classes are reserved for students who need the most remedial help to stay on track and avoid becoming drop-outs.

If those same needy students were on the street without something productive to do on more summer days, they could become victims or perpetrators of even more crime and violence.

Emanuel made a similar argument earlier this week when he talked about the 68,000 applications the city had received for the 25,000 summer jobs the city and participating companies and non-profits will be providing.

“In a thousand different ways, the program will make a difference and you won’t hear about it because it’s not bad news,” the mayor said then.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this week that CPS has been bracing principals for school budget cuts of at least 20 percent for the upcoming fiscal year, based on a $1.1 billion deficit for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

Dire warnings about potentially devastating budget cuts are nothing new from CPS, particularly when the clock is winding down in Springfield.

But, Emanuel argued Friday that the crisis is real—not manufactured.

“Last year, I think it was $75 million in cuts from the state. This year, it’s close to … $90 million in cuts. And we have spent five years trying to protect the classroom from a cycle of reduced support from the state,” the mayor said.

“Children of Chicago are 20 percent of the students in the state of Illinois … and we only receive 15 percent of the financial support from the state. That must change. … I don’t expect people to solve our problems for us. We’re gonna do the hard work. We’re gonna have further cuts and reforms and efficiencies. But, they have to get right decades of wrongs when it comes to education.”

Last year, a $634 million payment to the teachers pension fund triggered $200 million in school budget cuts.

CPS officials also warned of system-wide furlough days, 3,000 teacher layoffs and classes with as many as 35 students if the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund did not agree to a $500 million loan to ease the cash flow crisis.

But when individual school budgets were released, there were no additional cuts.

Instead, CPS decided to make a $480 million gamble that the General Assembly would correct what Emanuel and Schools CEO Forrest Claypool have called a “structural inequity” that has forced Chicago taxpayers to pay twice, once for the pensions of the city’s retired teachers and again for retired teachers outside Chicago.

Although CPS has long clamored for change in the school aid formula, Republicans have argued for just as long that Chicago gets other categories of state funding to off-set the cost of educating bi-lingual and special needs students.