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CPS budgets hold firm, ask principals to ‘do more with less’

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool, flanked by chief education officer Janice Jackson (left) and Joseph Lovett Elementary School Principal LeViis Haney, discusses the school budgets for 2016-2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A broke Chicago Public Schools touted Wednesday that it will hold per-pupil funding to the same levels as the end of last year, plans no teacher layoffs, and will present a balanced budget in August without borrowing.

That’s decently good news from the district that threatened a few weeks ago it might not open at all in September. But with a $300 million gap remaining, it also all hinges on risky assumptions that officials will finally ink a cost-savings deal with the Chicago Teachers Union and collect $205 million from the state that’s still contingent on pension reform.

If those pieces fall into place, CPS will allocate $4,087 in base per-pupil funding, about 7 percent lower than what was allocated in September 2014, but equal to what students received after unusual midyear cuts in February.

Those cuts were deemed necessary after CEO Forrest Claypool recommended a budget a year ago that depended on a phantom $480 million from Springfield, help that didn’t come in time to stave off reductions and layoffs.

“That was last year,” Claypool said at the former Colman Elementary School building, 4655 S. Dearborn, where principals were receiving their projected enrollments and budget figures throughout the day.

Help offered to school leaders to “do more with less” included advice on scheduling and on sharing part-time art, music and gym teachers.

Claypool repeatedly declined to provide specifics on how the budget would balance, saying it would be ready in August. He also declined to comment on teacher contract negotiations but intimated that the CTU deal would play a part in realizing more savings, saying, “We are making certain assumptions of course, but it’s an ongoing fluid negotiations process.”

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said his members were relieved at escaping threatened double-digit cuts to schools, but cuts of any kind year after year are unacceptable.

That opposition also applies to proposed pay cuts to teachers, whether a phaseout of a pension benefit or increase in health care contributions, from an earlier contract proposal CTU negotiators rejected.

“I don’t know what still stands” in the Board of Education’s offer, Sharkey said. “And if they’re planning on trying to close a $300 million budget gap on the backs of the neediest students and the people who work in the schools, that doesn’t seem like their last offer. That seems like their worst offer.”

State legislators somewhat eased CPS’ $1.1 billion budget deficit when they approved a stopgap plan that kicked about $600 million to its largest district. But $205 million of that will materialize only if lawmakers enact “pension reform” by January. Meanwhile, a new bipartisan state commission has been tasked with improving Illinois’ funding formula to send more money to low-income districts like CPS.

The school by school budgets, which were not made public on Wednesday, also included a change to how special education staffers are allocated. Under a program that used be called “All Means All,” all principals will now receive a lump sum of money for special education students that they can dole out as they see fit.

They’re also being encouraged to schedule their special education students first.

Special education advocate Mary Fahey Hughes worried that principals will be “left holding the bag on trying to eke out services for what is an already inadequate amount” of money for children with individual education plans.

Principal LeViis Haney of Lovett Elementary School, a West Side school of about 380 students, mostly low-income, said Lovett will get by without any cuts to instruction.

“We were definitely nervous, we were definitely anxious about what could have been very catastrophic cuts to our student programs, but I am very relieved and happy that we are able to protect our core instructional programs for our school to continue our vision,” said Haney, who was invited to join Claypool and other officials at the press conference.

Principals will have about 10 days to assemble a spending plan, which must be approved by July 22 by members of their Local School Council, many of whom started brand new terms on July 1.

CPS’ full operating budget must be approved by Aug. 31 by the Board of Education, which also has to approve a property tax increase expected to yield $250 million toward teacher pensions.

As it frequently does when faced with money woes, CPS also has promised more efficiencies in its Central Office, which has witnessed countless layoffs in recent years. CPS so far has accounted for $59.2 million in savings there, $45 million from closing 400 central positions last year, and the rest from nonunion workers who lost a pension benefit and now contribute more toward their health insurance.

“Additional management reforms and efficiencies” were promised in the budget but were not explained.