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CPS budget denounced by good government, disability rights groups

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One of the top good government groups in the city said Tuesday it couldn’t endorse Chicago Public Schools “overly optimistic” budget, while a key advocacy group for the disabled blasted the CPS budget for a lack of transparency on spending for some of its neediest students.

On the eve of the Board of Education’s vote on a budget the schools chief declared “balanced,” the Civic Federation called CPS’ $5.4 billion operating budget the opposite, sorely in need of long-term planning.

Federation president Laurence Msall said CPS must devise a public Plan B in case the Chicago Teachers Union ultimately refuses to give back $31 million on pensions or the state’s General Assembly and governor fail to agree on pension reform by January, costing CPS about $215 million in normal pension costs.

“They bought a little time,” Msall said by telephone. “This is a very expensive budget, at the mercy of the CTU on the concessions, at the mercy of the Legislature on what pension reform would look like and what the governor would accept — and then they still need everything to break right.”

Meanwhile, CPS is borrowing too heavily, at an estimated $35 million cost for $1.5 billion in short-term loans to replenish the district’s cash flow until March, when property tax revenue arrives, Msall said. And how can they seek $945 million in borrowing for capital projects — which the Board also will consider Wednesday — without any long-term capital improvement plan?

The proposed budget, released just a few weeks ago, is a small improvement from last year’s, especially since it tackles debt instead of “scoop and toss” practices that push it into the future, Msall said.

CEO Forrest Claypool will recommend the spending plan to the full Board of Education at Wednesday’s meeting, and it’s expected to pass. State law requires board approval before Sept. 1. Claypool said in an emailed statement that CPS does continue to “push for long-term education funding reform from the State of Illinois. Education funding reform will lay the groundwork for fiscal stability not just for Chicago’s schools, but for countless struggling districts around the state — and their students living in poverty.”

District spokeswoman Emily Bittner insisted still that “CPS’ revenues match expenditures, and expenditures are down $232 million from FY16.”

Both the Civic Federation and disabilities rights group Access Living denounced a lack of transparency. Msall called on the district to hold its public hearings during hours more accessible to the public.

Education policy analyst Rod Estvan found the changes to special education spending this year especially troubling — and nearly impossible to compare to last year.

Instead of assessing a school’s need and sending the correct number of special education teachers as it has in the past, CPS is now giving a lump sum of money to each principal to hire teachers directly. The money is based on what the school spent last year, a problem because many schools couldn’t make hires until after the start of the year. Schools also lost a flat 4 percent off their total money for children with disabilities, a pot of money that’s still up for grabs by schools that succeed in appealing.

“It’s putting the principals into a really terrible spot. They’re having to make decisions weighing general education against special education in some cases,” using discretionary or core instruction dollars to fund the legally required special education services, he said.

“We don’t know how many of the layoffs for the gen-ed teachers are driven by principals having to take money away from music, art, whatever and having to apply it to special ed,” Estvan said.

Bittner said late Tuesday that special ed spending at schools is on the rise, at $610 million compared to $607 million spent last year.

“As the leaders of their schools, principals are closest to the needs of their school communities and are best suited to ensuring those needs are met. The District is committed to supporting principals with additional training, administrative support and instructional resources, along with a robust appeals process,” she wrote in an email.