CPS officials grilled over local school cuts at budget hearing

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The specter of 50 closed schools haunted a budget hearing Wednesday night on the West Side as dozens of people asked Chicago Public Schools officials over and over and over:

How could CPS continue to cut budgets at neighborhood schools while opening new charter and contract schools — even after shutting down a record number of schools just a year ago?

“We need to pull the money from the plan of expanding charter schools, reinvest in neighborhood schools in our communities,” said Scott Hiley, a special education teacher at Lincoln Park High School whose classes have so many desks jammed in that he has little room to move around.

Still, “my school is fortunate. We’re still open. Kids don’t have to bring their own toilet paper,” he said at Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren, the West Side location of one of three simultaneous two-hour meetings held throughout the city Wednesday night on the proposed $5.76 billion spending plan.

That plan, to be approved on July 23 by the Board of Education, includes about $67 million in cuts to district-run neighborhood schools and $62 million in increases for charter schools over last year, including to the scandal-ridden UNO Charter Network, and the Concept Charter schools that are under federal investigation. Neighborhood high schools have suffered the largest cuts, according to budget documents. CPS links the cuts and raises to enrollment shifts.

CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley, who laid out the spending plan for the 100-plus attendees, said CPS’ accounting trick of collecting 14 months of property tax revenue to pay for 12 months of expenses was intended to “buy time” until the state could resolve the pension problem.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep funding in the classroom,” he said, laying out spending on International Baccalaureate programs, building repairs and the Safe Passage program despite an $876.3 million deficit.

“Why would you do that? The answer is, we’re here for the kids,” said Cawley as laughter erupted. He took the brunt of the crowd’s anger and distrust, including questions about where he lives and where his children go to school.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said he didn’t see any political will in CPS to tussle for more money in Springfield.

“CPS closed 50 schools last year, supposedly based upon declining enrollment. At the same time they opened new charter schools despite promises of increased funding for existing schools,” he said. “CPS needs to fight for additional funding for its schools and use resources it has to support the schools now in the system.”

Nelson Sosa of the Pilsen Alliance questioned the validity of the hearings.

“We have told you in no uncertain terms they don’t want school closings, they don’t want more charter schools,” he said. “We’ve told you all these things in all different ways and you come with the same answers.”

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