On the eve of the approval of Chicago Public Schools’ $5.76 billion budget for 2015, two advocacy groups on Tuesday blasted the budget in their own analyses as unsustainable, shortsighted and based on a gimmick.
Both the Civic Federation, which promotes responsible government spending, and Access Living, which advocates for the disabled, said they cannot support the schools budget because it doesn’t address CPS’ structural deficit and patches over an $876 million budget hole with what the Federation called “an accounting gimmick.”
“This is a 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 problem is, they don’t have access to the same broad base of revenues the state of Illinois does.”
Wetmore also said CPS risks losing public trust “in the district’s ability to be an efficient steward of taxpayer funds” by keeping spending details under wraps — there was just one line in the budget book about expenditures, she said. And the district keeps widening its structural deficit by building new schools and new programs, she said.
“What we want them to do is come out and tell the taxpayers … what their plan is, what will happen if the state of Illinois doesn’t come through with pension reform,” Wetmore said.
The Board of Education will vote Wednesday on the budget, likely in its existing form, which uses an accounting trick of collecting 14 months of property tax revenue to pay for 12 months of expenses. Tim Cawley, the district’s administrative officer, told a crowd at a state-required budget hearing last week that this one-time fix is intended to “buy time” until the state could resolve the pension problem.
The board also will vote to collect property taxes to the cap limit as it has in 16 out of the last 21 years, generating about $33.5 million or about $34 more dollars on a home worth $250,000, according to CPS spokesman Joel Hood. In four of the other five years, taxes were raised to keep up with inflation but not to the cap, he said.
“CPS is utilizing all of its available resources to ensure that the children of Chicago have the resources they need to receive the high-quality education they deserve. Because the state legislature has not yet provided comprehensive pension relief for CPS, the district is collecting as much tax revenue as it is authorized to collect,” Hood said in an email.
The budget proposes cutting $67 million at neighborhood schools and adding $62 million more for charter schools over last year’s funding. CPS links the shifts to enrollment trends.
Access Living budget analyst Rod Estvan chided CPS even though the district wants to increase its spending on special education.
“I wish the one thing they would heed would be to have a broad discussion about the all the inputs for revenue and stop this constant referencing to ‘the state has to come in and save us,’” he said by telephone Tuesday.
Special education employment positions, proposed at 8,760 for 2015 appear to be up over the 2014 budget’s 7,970, but are actually down from the 8,890 in the district at the end of the 2014 fiscal year, Estvan said. Among those cut were an occupational therapist, 10 school nurses, seven school psychologists and three social workers, according to the analysis. CPS also added 15 speech pathologists and three health services nurses.
CPS wants to spend $857.2 million on its special education programs in 2015, compared to budgeted $779.8 in the 2014 budget or $802.9 from the end of 2014.