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Parents, students to CPS: Stop per pupil budget shell game

Michelle Leon, a student representative on the Kelly High School local school council, speaks during a Wednesday press conference outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times

The Chicago Board of Education was urged to cease its shell game with school budgets and special education funding and support proposed ordinances that would use tax-increment finance funding to increase CPS per pupil funding.

The special ed funding debate comes as a new CPS report spotlights spiraling costs and a persistent achievement gap plaguing a special ed program serving more than 52,000 students, and outlines a plan for a reboot.

The 14-page report, “Closing the Achievement Gap and Improving Outcomes for Students with Disabilities,” also finds potential racial bias in the disparate numbers of male minority students identified as special ed — one in five black males, 18 percent of Hispanic males, and 15 percent of white males.

At the board’s meeting Wednesday, speaker after speaker — parents, students and local school council members — complained about the late budgets, which Chicago Public Schools claimed contained no cuts to classrooms, yet ended up with significantly larger cuts than CPS reported.

And they lambasted what was described as continuing, callous disregard for special ed students, whose funding was removed from central office oversight. It was lumped into schools’ general budgets and then 4 percent, or $18.9 million, was withheld. Critics charge the district is holding the money as a cushion for possible litigation over special ed. The district denies it.

“Our LSC voted for the budget out of fear,” Gin Kilgore, LSC chairman at Goethe Elementary, said of the budgets schools received July 13, with only 10 days to approve the budgets.

“We did not want to compromise our principal’s ability to move forward. I know nobody wakes up with a maniacal, ‘Oh, let’s see what tacks we can throw on the road today to make it hard for our school leaders to run our schools,’ ” Kilgore said. “And yet, that’s how it often feels, with a smoke bomb to follow, so that we can’t figure out why we can’t get the car to move.”

Michelle Leon, a student at Kelly High School said: “We’re not asking for much, just enough to get us through this year. I am here today to ask the CPS board to work with me and other students to win more funding for our schools. We support aldermen’s proposal for $1,000 more per pupil.”

CPS, which has to submit its full operating budget by Aug. 31 — after mandatory public hearings — has said it will accept schools’ formal appeals of their funding starting Aug. 1.

“Shortly after CPS released its budget, LSC members began contacting us because actual losses didn’t reflect the numbers being shared. We have a large spreadsheet going,” said Wendy Katten of the parent group Raise Your Hand.

“Senn, it’s reported they lost $282,000, actual is $600,000. Solomon, it’s reported they lost $33,000, actual, $246,000. Hyde Park High School, Manley, Foreman all lost over 10 percent of their budget,” Katten said. “Meanwhile, today, the board will vote on $15.8 million in new spending and for outsourced capital management. How do you explain to students at Julian — which is losing seven positions — that we have more money for the contractor from the UNO scandal, but not to give them the courses and support they need for a fair chance at life?”

Many parents of special ed students spoke eloquently of how lumping of the targeted funds — declared by some observers a violation of federal law — will lead to further decimation of special ed teachers and aides.

Validating the parents’ concerns, the CPS report cites lax standards and oversight of special ed referrals, evaluation and eligibility, and inconsistent practices. CPS spent $900 million last year, up from $791 million in 2010.

“Just in our special ed program, three or four positions will be lost,” said parent Donna Lechel, of Shields Middle School. “There will be larger class sizes. I have a special ed student, and this is his last year. Is he going to get the services he needs or end up repeating the eighth grade?”

Said parent Christine Palmieri, of Blaine Elementary, in tears: “At our school, a special ed teacher and two aides have been cut. My son has autism. The message from day one in kindergarten has been very clear. Children with special needs are not welcome in the Chicago Public Schools. Please move to reverse the reprehensible co-mingling of this budget, and release the 4 percent which we believe intended for litigation. Any litigation should not be borne on the backs of our schools and students, but rather, by this board.”

The Board on Wednesday approved a new construction trades program at Dunbar Vocational High. In closed session, it also approved a $250,000 retainer for the Jenner & Block law firm to represent the board in a lawsuit challenging Illinois’ discriminatory funding of public education; a 50-year lease to Cook County to operate a new public health clinic at the Hanson Park Fieldhouse, at $1 a year; and transfer of shuttered Pope Elementary to the Chicago Housing Authority for residential housing and administrative offices. Pope is the 14th of the 50 schools closed in 2013 to be sold or re-purposed.