Amid another steep enrollment drop, Chicago Public Schools’ principals received school budgets Thursday designed to hold schools steady with a slight per-student funding increase.
Yet uncertainty remains about how the school year, promised to start on time, will end as the district relies for the third year in a row on state funding yet to come — this time to the tune of $300 million.
The best-case scenario for the broke district borrowing to keep the lights on — a “hold-steady budget” as CEO Forrest Claypool characterized it — aims to cover increased costs for existing school staff so schools with stable enrollment won’t have to lay teachers off. Per-pupil funding will rise by about $200 per student, to $4,590 for children in kindergarten through third grade, $4,290 for remaining elementary students and $5,320 per high schooler.
The financially troubled system as a whole, however, is projected to take another troubling dive of 8,000 students.
“We’re going to make sure for this school year, that our schools open and remain open,” Claypool told reporters, declining to specify how. “We will do whatever is necessary to make that happen despite the very difficult fiscal position we’ve been put in because of the dramatically unequal state funding system.”
The entire budget, to be released in full on August 7, assumes that $300 million in new state money will be approved by state lawmakers, despite the governor’s promise to veto $200 million of it. CPS also expects $2.281 billion less in federal funding for the upcoming school year, about $43 million less due to a decrease in enrollment, especially in poor students.
Principals leaving budget briefings with district officials at Westinghouse College Prep High School were pleased to have more money to cover cost-of-living raises and two “step” raises for teachers agreed upon in October’s contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.
“It’s good to see the student-based budgeting rate go up and I think 5 percent should be able get it done,” said Nate Pietrini, outgoing principal at Hawthorne Elementary on the North Side.
With CPS forcing mid-year cuts during the past two years after failing to secure state money the district banked on, “What do we do with our dollars? How do we spend them, how do we not spend them?” another elementary principal wondered. Last year unspent money was taken back by Central Office. The year before, savings were needed to avoid mid-year layoffs, the principal said, adding, “I feel genuinely torn, it’s a financial crisis. I don’t know what the right thing to do is.”
As of Thursday evening, school by school numbers hadn’t been published. Problems also were reported with the budgeting software principals use, an extra hardship considering budgets must be finalized and approved by Local School Councils by Wednesday.
Some described the mood inside Westinghouse as “tense.”
“This is the worst I’ve seen it because we’re still banking on money we haven’t gotten from the state,” said one elementary school principal from the Southwest Side who wouldn’t give her name.
She added: “At this point, if they would fire me, I would welcome it. It’s that bad.”
At one point, principals said they were asked if they’d like a Q&A session with Claypool.
“It was like dead silence. No one wanted to hear the rhetoric and political answers,” said the Southwest Side principal.
CTU leaders also warned of more mid-year cuts.
“For the third year in a row, CPS leaders have provided a budget to schools without any idea of how to pay for it,” union president Karen Lewis said at union headquarters.
Positive changes to special education funding offer some hope, “but these merely allow the district to run in place,” Lewis said.
“So while the latest budget does signal the district is getting serious about financing obligations to our new contract and special education, it does not go far enough to address all the critical needs of CPS students and their families,” Lewis said.
Complaints last year from the CTU, principals and families led to changes in special education. Money for special ed staffers is no longer co-mingled with the rest of a school’s budget, and all special ed money will be allocated now, including the 4 percent held back last year in case of later changes.
Contributing: Fran Spielman