As community questions spending, CPS lays out capital plans

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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks at a Chicago Public Schools budget hearing at the National Teachers Academy on Aug. 17, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

How can Chicago Public Schools consider paying for new buildings and annexes when it cannot manage to pay for the schools it already has?

That was the gist of the questions posed to CPS officials at a brief capital budget hearing Wednesday evening, one of a series of meetings this week that happened to finish an hour ahead of schedule.

Jennie Bennett, who’s treasurer for the state’s largest school district, laid out CPS’ capital spending plans for the fiscal year that began on July 1, comprising at least $173 million to relieve overcrowding; $51 million in facility upgrades; $32 million in building repair — including fixes for schools that have tested positive for lead in their drinking water — and $81 million in technology and other much-needed upgrades.

That’s a total of $338 million so far. District officials plan to issue a supplemental budget this fall, Bennett said, adding, “We want to see what the bond markets will support in terms of funding.”

Chip Johnson (left), Jennie Huang Bennett, and Mary De Runtz, of Chicago Public Schools, listen to public comments during the budget hearing on Wednesday night. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Chip Johnson (left), Jennie Huang Bennett, and Mary De Runtz, of Chicago Public Schools, listen to public comments during the budget hearing on Wednesday night. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

The budget that CPS CEO Forrest Claypool boasts is “balanced” still depends on at least two big “ifs”: on more than $200 million from state legislators who must pass “pension reform” by January for the money to materialize, and on about $30 million in concessions from the Chicago Teachers Union. Meanwhile, CPS, which claims a budget deficit of $1.1 billion — also announced intentions this week to seek up to $945 million in bonds.

The capital plans befuddled Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

“I’m not sure I understand some of the choices made. For example, the expansion of South Loop when we have this beautiful building, in which we’re standing, National Teachers Academy, where all you need to do is draw the attendance boundaries.

“It would save a significant amount of money,” she said during the two minutes of public comments allotted to each speaker. Lewis also cited current CPS plans to build a multimillion-dollar annex for the elite Skinner West in the rapidly gentrifying West Loop — less than a mile away from underused Brown Elementary school, which serves mostly low-income African-American children.

Chicago Teachers Union organizer Martin Ritter speaks at the budget hearing Wednesday night. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union organizer Martin Ritter speaks at the budget hearing Wednesday night. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“Clearly they’re looking at who’s moving where, and what part of the city is going to be more gentrified, and that’s where we have to build more schools, instead of possibly sharing or doing other things that would be about a much more equitable and desegregated city. And that’s 98 percent of what’s wrong with Chicago right now and we don’t want to talk about that,” Lewis added afterwards.

School communities have complained of teacher layoffs, reduced special education services and a host of other problems tied to the district’s perennial budget crisis.

As Hollis Beecher, a substitute teacher in the city’s public school system, put it: “How can we be spending so much time talking about buildings when children suffer from lack of teachers and lack of supplies?”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks at the budget hearing Wednesday night. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks at the budget hearing Wednesday night. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Beecher said she has taken over classes that didn’t have a permanent teacher for a whole year, saying, “It saddens me to see adults not address children’s issues.”

Subsequent hearings on a $250 million new property tax levy and on the operating budget will be held during the day Thursday and Friday to provide feedback to members of the Board of Education who will vote on both measures — as well as the bond authorization — at its meeting next week.

The Truth-in-Taxation hearing will be held on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Board of Education chambers, 42 W. Madison St. Registration for a two-minute speaking slot: 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Hearing: 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Budget hearings will be held on Friday at the CPS Loop Office, 42 W. Madison St. Registration for a two-minute speaking slot: 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., then noon to 1 p.m. Hearings: 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., then 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

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