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CPS offers appeals for shrinking, confusing school budgets

As Chicago Public School principals contend with about $140 million less than they had to spend a year ago, the district said will accept formal appeals for more money starting Aug. 1.

At least 60 schools have already asked for a share of $8 million pot intended to fill gaps where enrollment has plummeted from last year or for high schools where enrollment is already so small — below about 270 students — that they need help offering a full roster of classes.

CPS said it’s also working with “a handful of schools” that believe their enrollment will be higher than projected by district experts. The district overall is projected to lose about 4,600 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It doesn’t yet have preschool projections.

Next week, a formal appeals process will begin for schools to appeal their overall funding and lobby for more teachers and special education teachers and aides, according to CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said. Principals and the network chiefs that supervise them will work with a review committee to make final determinations. She didn’t say how much money was available for that.

“School funding closely mirrors changes in school enrollment, with overall enrollment declining 1.4 percent and funding for individual schools declining 1.3 percent,” she said in an email.

And special education funding, which follows a new process this year, will be adjusted on an ongoing basis, Bittner said.

In a major departure, CPS moved most special education spending from a central department to individual schools. Each principal is starting the year with the total money they spent last year on special ed, minus 4 percent — about $18.9 million — the district may later redistribute, Bittner said.

Local school budgets had to approve their schools’ spending plans by Friday, less than two weeks after they had received information from the district.

In sum, they said, there’s no way to avoid cuts within the system, despite what CPS officials have said about holding funding levels flat to last February, when the state’s largest district knocked about 5 percent of its per pupil funding.

CPS allocates a fixed amount of money per student, but this year, even schools that aren’t projected to lose a lot of children are still seeing budget declines. That’s despite reasssurances from CEO Forrest Claypool that the budget plans would “protect the classroom.”

“Why are some schools with flat enrollment getting huge cuts?” wondered Wendy Katten, of the parent group Raise Your Hand. frustrated about the opacity of numbers CPS released showing budget totals different from what some principals have been reporting.

The state’s largest district said it held per-pupil funding rates steady from last February, after a round of unusual midyear budget cuts. Finally, last week, it released comparable numbers from last July to this July showing a total of about $140 million less going to schools for all children except special ed students. But teachers and parents still have reported feeling confused.

“This affects lives,” Katten explained. “I think it matters a ton. The impact to the collective is very important, and chipping away at educational offerings that were already subpar is going to have a negative impact on our city.”

Though funding levels are the same as they were in February, principals used up reserves last winter to keep staff and programs in place. So some of the cushion is gone.

However, the numbers CPS released don’t include money that specific schools are able to generate on their own from imposing student fees; writing their own grants; leasing out building space or cellphone towers; or just hitting up parents — solutions that aren’t feasible at the bulk of schools in a district where almost nine in 10 children are poor.

Chicago Teachers Union researcher Sarah Hainds said there’s still hope for schools that enrollment projections won’t be as bad as believed. Last year, the district feared losing 4,500 kids and ended up about losing 2,500.

Meanwhile, she said, “Everyone’s hearing conflicting stories. There’s so much panic and chaos going on right now.

“This is going to affect negotiations,” she said of ongoing contract talks between the union and district. “You can’t cut this money out and say it doesn’t affect the classroom.”