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CPS is getting $1.8B in federal relief funding. Parents and students are demanding a say in how it’s spent

Members of parent group Raise Your Hand, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and other community organizations held a virtual town hall Friday to share how they want the funds to be used.

Protestors chant asking Mayor Lori Lightfoot to consider and improve policies for Chicago Public Schools during a press conference by CPS parents and Raise for Hand for Illinois Public Education outside of City Hall at 101 N La Salle St in the Loop, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Members of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education and other protest outside City Hall in February. The group on Friday said they want to have greater input in CPS spending.
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Rocio Almazan, a sophomore at Curie High School, is part of a student committee that listens to classmates’ concerns and suggestions for the school, including thoughts about remote learning over the past year.

The student group advocates for its classmates, sending letters and petitions. The problem is they’re rarely heard — and that’s an issue that needs to be fixed as Chicago Public Schools officials figure out how to spend $1.8 billion in federal pandemic relief funding, she said.

“CPS has excluded all stakeholders since the pandemic and continues to do so,” Rocio said.

The district has said it’ll use the money to support students through pandemic challenges moving forward, but families want a say in that process. The Chicago Teachers Union has also turned its attention to the issue now that high school reopening negotiations are complete and all district schools are clear to resume in-person learning.

Members of parent group Raise Your Hand, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and other community organizations held a virtual town hall Friday to share how they want the funds to be used. Among their top priorities are the hiring of additional special education staff to meet those students’ needs and funding housing vouchers for the 17,000 CPS children without permanent housing.

The groups also suggested closing the digital divide with working computers and internet for all students, providing additional resources for immigrants and children whose first language isn’t English, hiring restorative justice coordinators at all schools and opening school-based health centers.

Advocates were clear on what they didn’t want the money to go toward: paying off pre-pandemic debt.

Bridgett White, a CPS mother and member of the parent group Raise Your Hand, said the district and its families can’t afford to “go back to normal” because learning conditions weren’t good enough even before COVID-19.

“Once they get this money, whatever excuses they’ve been giving in the past, that ends,” she said. “That ends because they have enough resources to do what we need them to do.”

CPS is funded at 66% adequacy, according to a formula created a few years ago by state education officials, meaning the district only has about two-thirds of the money it needs to properly address its students’ needs. The difference is $1.9 billion per year.

While CPS is set to get a total of about $2.7 billion over three waves of federal relief funding, that cash infusion is for multiple years’ worth of expenses that arose because of the pandemic, such as school safety and cleaning protocols, as well as student support moving forward. Advocates say federal and state officials need to permanently increase education funding to have a meaningful long-term impact on districts like CPS that serve thousands of students from low-income families.

In the past, critics have complained that CPS’ community engagement has amounted to unveiling a policy, then asking stakeholders for input after the fact — ultimately leading to little change in the district’s plans before the board signs off.

Asked if district will engage parents and students before deciding how to budget the federal funding, spokesman James Gherardi said, “The district is committed to supporting and investing in our school communities most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes low-income students and priority student groups, such as diverse learners, and students experiencing homelessness. CPS is a large and diverse district and we believe that individual school communities are essential in determining how best to support their students with additional resources.”