Under pressure, CPS restores $15M for its poorest schools

SHARE Under pressure, CPS restores $15M for its poorest schools

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool says he turned to consultants he’s worked with before because he needed help from “skilled experts.” | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times files

Under pressure for cutting school budgets disproportionately for low-income children, the Chicago Public Schools said Friday it would restore $15 million of previously frozen discretionary money to its poorest schools.

That reversal, however, will increase the district’s current budget gap to $129 million.

CPS officials had taken away half of each principal’s remaining discretionary funds, saying the move would save $46 million as the school system makes up for $215 million it had counted on  — in vain — from state government. The money pays for school supplies, field trips, recess monitors and other various school needs.

But after a Sun-Times analysis published Tuesday showed the cuts disproportionately affected schools with mostly low-income students, the district relented on Friday. The Sun-Times found that schools where three of four children are low-income generally had their discretionary funds cut at twice the rate as schools where one in four children were low-income. The newspaper also found that majority Hispanic schools saw freezes that were twice as large as majority white schools.

CEO Forrest Claypool hastily promised a solution at Wednesday’s school board meeting, where Hispanic community leaders and members of the public berated him for the unfairness of the cuts, especially in the wake of a civil rights lawsuit he filed against Gov. Bruce Rauner alleging “separate but unequal” funding for CPS’ minority children.

On Friday afternoon, Claypool and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson told principals that $15 million would go back to CPS’ low-income schools sparked by pressure from black and Hispanic leaders. Another $3 million would be restored to charter schools whose cuts are coming out of their fourth quarter payment due in April.

Just 66 schools saw no change. Money was given back to 434 schools that qualify for federal Title I money for low-income children — either $57 per student or the amount of the original freeze if it’s smaller. No school should now lose more than $300 per student, CPS said.

“After the freeze was announced, we heard strong concerns from members of both the African-American and Hispanic communities. While we cannot make this freeze equal in all schools, we want to be responsive to those concerns and mitigate the most disproportionate impacts,” read the letter signed by Claypool and Jackson.

But no new funding has been identified to pay for the budget restorations, so the district now has to find — or cut — $129 million from its current operations before June when its teacher pension payment is due. That’s barring a solution from a state judge or from state lawmakers who continue to try to hash out a larger state budget deal that might include more funding for CPS.

Claypool has blamed the cuts on a December veto by Rauner of legislation that would have given $215 million in aid to CPS to help cover a legally mandated payment for teacher pensions. Rauner has said the money was contingent on more wide-reaching government pension reforms that never happened.

School officials, who have already imposed four unpaid furlough days on all staff, said they considered an across-the-board spending cut, but that would have led to teacher layoffs at around 100 schools.

“Not only did we not want to lose good teachers, but the impact on students of removing teachers late in the school year would have been devastating at many schools,” Claypool’s letter read.

Rauner’s education secretary Beth Purvis applauded the change of heart.

“We are pleased to see CPS reverse their terrible decision to disproportionately cut money from the budgets of schools that serve low-income children who are Hispanic and African American,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “Now is the time for CEO Claypool to engage in a constructive process to pass a balanced budget with changes that would help schools across the state, including those in Chicago.”

Former members of the district’s Latino Advisory Council — whose 16 community members resigned in protest this week  — repeated calls for CPS to consult its stakeholders before making hard decisions.

“We share the same sentiment that the problem is in Springfield, but they can’t behave in the same manner as Springfield,” former member Jose Rico said. “You can’t point a finger at Springfield about being tone deaf to the needs of the students of the city of Chicago  when they are also acting that way. By engaging us, they can come up with a solution.”

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