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Student-based budgeting here to stay, Chicago schools chief says

Chicago Public Schools’ budget for next fall includes more money for special education and schools in high-need areas, and extra funding for teacher pay raises.

Sawyer Elementary School, 5247 S. Spaulding Ave., on the Southwest Side, Thursday morning, Feb. 27, 2020.
CPS released school-level budgets Tuesday for this fall.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

A school funding formula first introduced under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and since adjusted under new schools leadership is here to stay, the Chicago Public Schools CEO said Tuesday, despite calls for changes from the teachers union, activists and parents at six public meetings held this winter to discuss the issue.

The way the district allocates dollars to its 514 schools has long been under the microscope as a potential source of deepening inequity at CPS. Schools in low-income neighborhoods that have seen population loss are hurt financially by factors outside their control under a funding formula that takes away money from a school when students leave. Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on finding a better way to give schools the resources they need.

Schools chief Janice Jackson said Tuesday that modifications can still be made, but she believes the basis of the current formula — called “student-based budgeting” and directly tied to student enrollment — is the most equitable available.

Jackson argued there simply needs to be increased state and federal funding across the board. By the state’s own assessments, CPS is still only funded at 64% adequacy in a new state formula that was put in place two years ago to prioritize resources for the districts with the most needs.

Jackson also argued that only a little more than 50% of the schools budget is determined by student-based budgeting. Other measures aim to fill in the gaps, such as so-called “equity grants” to schools affected by decreased enrollment.

Getting that message across to parents and teachers is partly why the district held those community meetings that were advertised as a way to hear input from stakeholders, she said.

“The reason why we committed to the engagement process is to bring about more awareness,” Jackson told reporters on a video-streamed news conference Tuesday as the district unveiled new school budgets given to principals.

“This is a funding issue, and that is a conclusion that was reached by the working group and conclusions that were reached at those six forums,” Jackson said. “If we’re having a discussion about how we slice the pie and the pie isn’t big enough for everybody, we’re going to continue to have those debates.”

None of the recommendations released Tuesday by that 20-member working group included a concrete revamping of the formula.

The decision to keep the current funding formula was criticized by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Lightfoot “must move equity from paper to reality, which requires an immediate end to student-based budgeting,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement Tuesday.

The budgets for each school next fall included increases across the board to special education and funds devoted to teacher pay raises negotiated during the teachers strike.

The overall sum of school budgets has increased by $125 million over last year, the district said. The budgets released Tuesday identify how much money each principal will be given to spend at their individual school. A district-wide, centralized budget will be released later this summer and will include money for building renovations and other special projects.

The equity grants in this year’s budgets increased to $44 million at 255 schools from last year’s $31 million at 219 schools. The average equity grant this year is $174,000, with the largest at nearly $700,000 — and an extra $100,000 is being given to the highest-needs schools. Taking a recommendation from the working group, Jackson said the district used the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Economic Hardship Index to target those resources for schools in the 12 areas of greatest need. The index uses a more nuanced approach to poverty, taking into account unemployment, housing, income, education and other economic hardship factors, rather than the district’s old method of counting how many students qualified for free or reduced lunch.

An additional $97 million has been set aside for schools to offer supports to special education students, which CPS said is the “largest one-year budget increase” for those services. CPS officials said that includes allocating special education positions, such as teachers and classroom aides, based on a previous year’s needs so schools will no longer face staffing shortages at the start of the year because of enrollment drops.

The school level budgets also include 3% increases to pay for higher teacher salaries and $13 million to hire 55 additional nurses, 44 additional social workers and 40 additional special education case managers, all issues that were negotiated during last fall’s teachers strike

Jackson has worked to release school budgets in the spring since she came to the helm of the 355,000-student district, to allow principals more time to plan for the fall. In previous years, some principals could face last-minute cuts later in the summer if enrollments dropped. While still early this year, school budgets were released about a month later than they were last year, likely due in part to the coronavirus crisis.

“CPS is closely monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 crisis to determine its potential impact on the district’s financial position. Based on current expectations about the district’s financial outlook, CPS does not anticipate making modifications to the plan released today,” officials said in a news release announcing the budgets.