CPS restores $24M in funding as alderpersons grill officials over cuts

CPS leaders appeared at a City Council hearing Thursday where they were asked why any school would see budget cuts during the pandemic and after an influx of federal dollars.

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Demonstrators protest outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters late last month, where parents of CPS students, organizers and their supporters rallied against budget cuts and demanded that CPS use federal funding.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After weeks of outcry over apparent budget cuts at Chicago Public Schools, district officials said they were restoring some funding for next year but they were still grilled on the matter by alderpersons at a City Council hearing Thursday.

The school system is distributing $14 million more in special education funding than originally planned along with $10 million more for general education, according to data provided to the Sun-Times — though officials say the new money was given out through a regular yearly process and not in response to criticism. The district also put dollar figures behind some previously announced initiatives, including $45 million for improved teacher training.

The moves are unlikely to entirely ease concerns, however, as City Council members are joining the chorus of educators and families asking why any schools should face cuts while pandemic recovery continues. As with every school budget season in recent memory, public discourse has been muddled between some parents and teachers who say their schools aren’t receiving the funds their students need, and district officials claiming their budget is the fairest to date.

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This year in particular, school communities have decried cuts since budgets were released in March because CPS received federal pandemic relief funds that educators and families believe should be poured into students’ needs as soon as possible — and at minimum maintain every school’s budget from the prior year. Officials say they’re using that money in a judicious way, as it’s meant to last for the next three years.

“You would think intuitively you wouldn’t have to make those cuts because of that funding,” Ald. Sophia King (4th) told district leaders at the Education and Child Development Committee hearing Thursday.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said students’ needs are so dire right now that “we don’t have the luxury to be holding onto money.

“Spend it now,” she told CPS leaders. “Our young people need you all. We are a city that is hurting ... and you all have an opportunity to do something different.

“The fact that you all are comfortable and OK with telling us that it’s OK to cut schools says we need new leadership. Because apparently you all can’t figure it out.”

The budgets in question represent the money principals receive to hire and pay for various positions and programs. The figures released in March show how much each school gets for the 2022-23 school year. Those original budgets showed CPS is sending about $60 million more to schools next year than was budgeted for the current year. Still, 40% of schools faced varying degrees of trims. And those cuts typically mean teachers or support staff are laid off — difficult decisions that lead principals to choose between an art teacher and a librarian, for example.

CPS has said any cuts represent shifting needs from one school to another. It could be the case that one school might have lost a handful of special education students while another gained some, and money was moved to match the new needs. That scenario is one in which Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, who has been critical of cuts, acknowledged made sense at last month’s Board of Education meeting.

CPS: Cutting positions ‘not the goal’

Advocates have criticized CPS’ use of student-based budgeting, which grants schools funding based on their enrollment. But the district has seen declining enrollment for over a decade, so over the years, that formula has meant schools lose students, then lose funding and lose more students because their school resources are hollowed out. Though that criticism remains, CPS says it’s now using a hybrid funding model in which about 44% of next year’s budgets are calculated through the student-based system.

“We’re not cutting positions, that’s not the goal, to cut positions,” CPS education chief Bogdana Chkoumbova told the committee. “The goal is really to make sure that our funding is equitably distributed across the district. We want to make sure that enrollment trends in one school versus another are not contributing to some schools keeping more resources in one place.”

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Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When it came to special education in the budgets released in March, the average school received $87,377 more than last year and total special ed funding increased by $44.8 million — but not all schools benefitted.

There were 180 schools whose special education funding decreased by an average of $115,000. Generally, one position costs around $100,000. A total of 78 schools had lost six-figure funding, the largest being Ogden elementary and high school at $685,575, Orozco at $622,784, Gregory at $455,322 and Zapata at $439,900.

Principals district-wide appealed the cuts at their schools, as they are able to do every year. That’s how $14.3 million was added back into special education funding since March, according to new data provided by the district. Overall special education funding is now up $59.1 million over last year’s budgets.

Among those schools with the largest special ed in the original budgets, Ogden had $252,808 restored, and Zapata got $192,640 of its funding back. Orozco and Gregory didn’t see any money returned.

Lake View High School, Smith, Lowell and Volta received the most in special education appeals, each over $270,000. In all, 116 schools got more money in these adjustments to spend on special ed, with an average increase of $123,377.

$45 million for teacher training

The district also gave schools $45 million for teacher professional development, $24 million of which is set for 184 schools to hire dedicated instructional coaches. Some high schools are getting another $7 million for athletic directors. Both of those initiatives were previously announced but hadn’t yet been added to school budgets. Another $10 million has been restored since March for general education after principal appeals, with $3 million more for preschool.

Though some appreciated those investments, questions remained around why that money wouldn’t go toward arguably more pressing needs.

Some schools might say, “Yeah, professional development is great, but I need these teachers. Or I need this librarian,’” Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

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