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Principals seek parents’ help to lobby legislators for schools

After a budget forum Monday evening at Agassiz Elementary School, parents sign online petitions and tweet their support for a state school funding bill. | Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times

Nicole Oppenheim cannot imagine her twins starting school next year with 40 classmates at Hawthorne Elementary Scholastic Academy.

If the Chicago Public Schools’ doomsday budget projections become fact in the absence of state aid, schools might have no other choice.

That’s why Oppenheim turned up at a budget forum Monday night and signed letters to the powerful the House speaker and Senate president, urging them to take action on a state school funding bill before the session ends on May 31.

“I’m not alone in saying we’re all sick and tired of stalling in Springfield, especially on something as important as school funding,” she said after the meeting at Agassiz Elementary School, where principals of five North Side schools laid out possible effects of cuts and asked parents to lean on lawmakers.

CPS has warned of steep cuts to per-pupil funding levels that likely would result in ballooning class sizes or split grades, and the loss of art and music, Agassiz Principal Mira Weber said.

Schools are hosting forums all week to clue parents in on what proposed budget cuts could look like in individual classrooms. Public meetings are still scheduled to be held at Darwin Elementary, 3116 W. Belmont; Bateman Elementary, 4220 N. Richmond; Palmer Elementary, 5051 N. Kenneth; Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr; and the DuSable Campus, 4934 S. Wabash.

“We want to flood them with our voices,” Weber told the crowd of about 150 parents and teachers. “And we cannot stand by and let May 31 come and go without us doing everything we can, and we’re relying on you.”

The principals championed Senate Bill 231, which already passed the Senate with support from CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union, but has yet to be called in the House of Representatives. It would revamp the state’s funding formula so districts with high concentrations of low-income children would receive a greater share of money. It also would help CPS with $200 million of its pension costs — leading critics to call it a “CPS bailout.”

The governor has his own plan to fund schools next year that would cut CPS funding.

CPS released its worst case budget scenario last week to 15 principals. It has not yet shown the rest of the district’s schools how much they’ll have to open their doors in September, and it still wouldn’t say Monday when they’ll find out.

CEO Forrest Claypool, who plans a trip to Springfield on Thursday, told them that without any financial help from the General Assembly, on average, schools will see cuts for the coming school year amounting to one in every four dollars. That’s partly because a whopping $676 million pension payment is due June 30.

The amount CPS allocates per student is projected to be about 43 percent lower than it was in September — and the only reason schools won’t feel that pinch is that they’ll receive money for their low-income students from federal and state authorities. Charter schools face equal per-pupil funding cuts.