Chicago Board of Education passes $6.8 billion budget

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Chicago homeowners can expect their property taxes to go up after the Board of Education on Wednesday approved a $6.8 billion budget for Chicago Public Schools that critics say uses another accounting gimmick to provide a short-term solution.

The $5.76 billion operating budget for CPS’ 400,000 students in 2015 banks hard on pension solutions from Springfield and depends on 14 months of property tax revenue to pay for 12 months of spending.

The Board of Education’s 6-0 vote also raises property taxes to the spending cap for the 16th time in the last 21 years, according to district spokesman Joel Hood, generating about $33.5 million or $34 more on a home worth $250,000. The seventh and newest board member, Deborah Quazzo, was absent from the meeting.

Despite this money and another unexpected $14 million in federal telecommunications money, the district still faced an $880 million deficit, the bulk of which it chalked up to a $647 million pension payment increase.

“The only good news is the state contributed an extra $50 million to the pension fund on top of the $12 million they’re required,” Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro told the board.

“I’m going to vote for this budget,” board member Henry Bienen told his colleagues, despite his concerns about the district’s persistent structural deficit and fears that CPS’ perilous credit rating could take another hit.

Capital spending accounts for $509 million; debt service an additional $603 million. Of the $4.88 billion in operational spending, $70 million will go to schools to keep up with contract-mandated teacher raises; $13 million will pay for 168 extra arts and gym positions to fulfill two of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mandates; and $1 million will expand the district’s Safe Passage program around buildings before and after school at six new schools, though the district won’t say which ones.

CPS also is spending $1.8 million on its communications department; $29 million on the office that approves and regulates charter schools; and $16 million on its legal department.

Budget watchdogs from the Civic Federation and Access Living had urged the board this week to vote against the budget because it contained no solutions to the structural deficit.

“This is shortsighted. It’s another stopgap measure. It feels like they’re playing from the State of Illinois playbook, and that’s a really dangerous place to be. They’re using gimmicks,” Civic Federation Vice President Sarah Wetmore said by telephone Tuesday.

The budget passed unchanged despite a recent series of public hearings mandated by state law to allow feedback, and a long line of parents and teachers Wednesday who begged the board to reconsider.

“This budget again creates winners and losers in terms of funding but no real solutions for how to create equitable and high-quality education for each and every child in CPS,” said Jennie Biggs, of the parent group Raise Your Hand, one of many speakers who wondered why CPS was expanding charter schools when it could barely afford the schools it has. She said 42 neighborhood high schools were hit with $35 million in budget cuts.

CPS attributed a $62 million increase to charter school budgets and a $67 million decrease in neighborhood school budgets mainly to enrollment shifts, a change the Illinois Network of Charter Schools praised.

“We support CPS’ Student Based Budgeting model that allows for educational dollars to follow the student more equitably to their public school of choice, whether it is a charter school, a district-run school, or a contract school,” the group said in a statement.

But Morrill Elementary graduate Carl Ferguson cited an ongoing FBI investigation at Des Plaines-based charter chain Concept Schools.

“I and the others believe that we should not rush over to any more Concept Schools. The reason is because 19 schools have been raided by the FBI. . . . Neighborhood schools are losing money while charter schools are receiving money. I don’t recall my school being raided by the FBI.”

Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, accused the board members, all of whom were appointed by Emanuel, of playing politics with the schools budget and said the onus to properly fund the schools “falls on the mayor.”

“By using 14 months’ worth of revenue in this fiscal year, it pushes the problems of funding into next year — until after the election — and into a contract year,” he said.

“The current crisis has also been exacerbated by the unchecked proliferation of charter schools, which have seen their portion of the schools budget grow 30 percent faster than overall school spending — and is directly linked to the decision to close 50 schools last year due to budgetary reasons.”

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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