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Late CPS budget forces schools to play beat the clock

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool, flanked by Ray Elementary School Principal Megan Thole (left) and CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, discusses the school year 2016-2017 budgets, Wednesday, July 13, 2016. File Photo.| Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools’ long-awaited budget is so late it’s forcing principals and Local School Councils to scramble in the middle of the summer to make sense of changes — and to find time to discuss and approve the spending plans.

Principals received school-by-school K-12 budgets on July 13, late even by CPS standards after the start of the fiscal year. They must have them completed — and approved by an in-person quorum of their Local School Councils by July 22, a challenging feat in the middle of summer.

“How are we going to figure this out in 10 days or less?” wondered Wendy Katten of the parent group, Raise Your Hand. “People are out of town and they have to make big decisions.”

Some schools reported glitches, for example, in how many security officers appeared in school budgets when initially released. Many school budgets also appeared to increase overall over last year — but that’s because CPS transferred money for special education students to principals for the first time, instead of paying for teachers and aides from the central office.

School-by-school budgets weren’t shared with the public at large until late Thursday — after several fixes had been made, according to a letter chief finance officer Ron DeNard wrote to principals.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and chief education officer Janice Jackson scheduled a meeting to review budgets with principals and LSC members just as the weekend begins — from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday at Westinghouse High School — eliciting suspicion about whether they actually want anyone to participate.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said they had no choice but to move quickly.

“With such a compressed timeline for turning around school budgets, our primary objective was to brief LSC members as quickly as possible — especially because so many principals will be working hard on their budgets this weekend,” she said. “With these school budgets, CPS classrooms will be protected, and schools will open on time to deliver the quality education our students deserve.”

The broke district didn’t know how much it would have to spend until the last day of June, before which officials feared they’d have to enact cuts of up to 40 percent for per-pupil funding. A state compromise plan kicks around $600 million to CPS toward its $1.1 billion deficit, but $205 million of that depends on the state to enact pension reform by January. Nor will Claypool say yet how he’ll balance the budget that still lacks another $300 million outright.

With the full operating budget due by August 31 after mandatory public hearings, CPS and principals both are working on tight timeframes.

Perhaps the district is acting too hastily, said Jeff Young, a Local School Council member at Darwin Elementary School. Darwin initially believed it was losing more than $300,000 from last year, but the elimination of both security guards turned out to be a mistake. Young couldn’t say for sure what the losses would be from the projected decline of almost 40 students until the LSC meets next week with the principal.

“There’s not going to be a lot of discussion. It’s going to be this is what the principal has budgeted, and that’s it,” Young said. “A week is really not a lot of time. But this is how the city runs things, this is how the city works. … They know if they let people work with these budgets any longer, they’re going to be upset about it.”

Mark Sheridan Math & Science Academy’s principal is out of town, on a long-planned vacation, said LSC member Jennie Biggs, who plans to attend the meeting with CPS officials. He had been running various scenarios to prepare but until the LSC gathers next week, Sheridan’s community doesn’t yet have any sense of what’s happening, especially with special ed students, she said.

Amid the confusion, parents and principals say, one thing is clear: Despite Claypool’s promises of protecting classrooms from budget woes, students are in fact going to be affected. The district plans to spend some $38 million less in its schools this year, about $2.77 billion compared to $2.8 billion last year.

Brighton Park Elementary School on the Southwest Side plans to cut several teaching jobs, and try to share music teacher with another school, teacher Xian Franzinger Barrett said.

“For CPS to say things like ‘we’re so happy we’re going to keep these cuts [from] the classroom,’ — that’s the most ridiculous line that any parent, teacher or educator has ever heard,” said Joy Clendenning, an LSC member at Kenwood Academy High School. Cutting security means administrators spend more time in hallways “which means they’re not out there helping and supporting the teachers, which means that our classrooms are affected. It means that teachers have to take hallway duties.

“It’s really crazy to say that these cuts don’t affect the classroom,” she said.