CPS to principals: No cuts to schools in fall even if enrollment drops

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Chicago’s public schools won’t see any cuts in the fall to staff or budgets even if their enrollments dip amid ongoing drops in the city’s number of students.

That’s according to a letter sent Wednesday from Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, that also promises to put individual school budgets in the hands of principals as early as April for the first time in years.

Schools that grow will see more money, read the letter that spelled out some of funding changes so far cheered by school leaders. And district officials also will allocate special education positions to schools based on actual student need, rather than handing over a lump sum often criticized as inadequate in meeting federal requirements for kids.

“We hope this new model will allow you to plan confidently for the year ahead and without concerns about a potential budget reduction in the fall. We also hope this will provide your staff with greater certainty about their positions in the new year,” wrote Jackson, a former principal who’s sought to stabilize the district following several chaotic budgeting cycles.

She also chalked up the changes to long-awaited security in state funding, without which in recent years has led to budgets given to principals and Local School Councils well into the summer.

“Your parents will be able to enter the summer with clarity on who will be teaching their children in the fall,” Jackson added.

Budgets may change for schools that were helped this year with a one-time “hold harmless” bonus. And Jackson did not yet announce a key detail of CPS’ “student-based budgeting” model — the actual amount to be doled out per child, which in recent years hasn’t been enough, parents and principals have said.

“We are going to keep our fingers crossed that they are maintaining it at the same level or better yet even increasing it,” said Jennie Biggs of the parent group Raise Your Hand. “But there does seem to be some skepticism and people are saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what the budgets look like.’ “

Biggs and others including the Chicago Teachers Union called for an end to the model they say leads to inequity.

She added, “It’s not lost on us that we’re a year out from the mayoral election. Since our schools are controlled by the mayor, we do expect a year of lovely for our schools.”

Principals so far have praised the changes, especially considering the district’s steep enrollment drops overall during the past several years — drops that have had many of them scrambling to maintain services with less money. That’s because under “student-based budgeting” the district gives each school a set amount of money per student and lets principals decide how to spend it.

Al Raby High School can now ensure summer programs for incoming freshmen to help them prepare for a tough yet crucial transition to ninth grade, said principal Femi Skanes, adding she was already thinking about what her Freshmen Connection weeks might look like. Those plans weren’t possible when budgets came out after July 1 because schools were stuck starting the new fiscal year without any money, she said.

And schools like Raby — on the West Side and losing students for reasons well beyond their control — can now offer stability to staff and students and families despite what the official 20th day enrollment count shows.

“For a high school, not only do you have position cuts,  typically all the teaching schedules have to be readjusted, and you would literally have to go in and reprogram all student schedules,” Skanes said. 

“For us it means more consistency and continuity. When we provide schedules to our students in August, we can say confidently, ‘These are the teachers who will be before your children from September to June,’ ” she said. 

Schools can start next year’s hiring process in time to compete with suburban districts, principals said, and offer prospective candidates enough stability to convince them to join CPS.

“I think it says a lot in terms of stability for schools in general,” said Kevin Gallick, principal of George Washington High School on the Far South Side. “I can’t say enough, if schools are able to hire earlier, you can just do a better hiring process. We love to involve students and LSC members and teachers in the process.”

Hiring in summer means there aren’t kids in class for job candidates to teach a sample lesson, Gallick said.

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