‘Now is the time’ for new mayor, General Assembly to avoid $600M CPS deficit, Board of Ed says

Federal pandemic relief funding has papered over long-standing issues, but that money is set to run out in two years.

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez says the Illinois General Assembly must help the district avoid a nearing financial cliff.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez says the Illinois General Assembly must help the district avoid a nearing financial cliff.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In an urgent plea in their last public meeting before the April 4 mayoral runoff, Chicago Public Schools officials and Board of Education members on Wednesday called on the next mayor to secure more state funding for the city’s schools and fix structural funding problems as an impending deficit of more than half-billion-dollars looms over the shrinking district.

Officials laid bare the dire circumstances facing CPS in the near future, starting with a $628 million deficit in the 2025-26 school year that’ll grow to three-quarters of a billion dollars soon after. Federal pandemic relief funding has papered over long-standing issues, but that money is set to run out in two years.

“I’m not gonna be here much longer,” said Board of Education President Miguel del Valle, whose term ends this spring. “But we are going to make sure that whoever is the mayor of the city of Chicago … is fully briefed. Because this is as transparent as we have ever been as far as I’m concerned.”

The largest structural funding problem set to cause the deficit is a shortage of state education funding. Illinois officials admit they are only providing CPS with about 75% of the money it needs to adequately serve its students’ needs, which adds up to $1.4 billion in missing money. As the state’s largest district and the one with most high-need students, “we suffer the most,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.

Another is teacher pensions — which the state pays for in all other Illinois school districts except Chicago. That’s another $552 million that comes out of the CPS budget as obligations ramp up to make up for years of underfunding. CPS expects those costs to grow more than any other next year.

“We hope that the next mayor will call [Springfield leaders] and say, ‘Guys, it’s time for us to get real on this. You’ve stalled long enough,’” del Valle said. “The work to get there has to begin now. Now. Now is the time.”

There’s also the reality that suburban school districts can ask taxpayers to foot the cost for new buildings and repairs through referendums, while CPS cannot. For more than 20 years, the school district has taken out bonds for capital improvements. This year, it’s paying $762 million toward debt.

“We have so much need in our buildings,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said. “It’s real. There is no exaggeration of the need.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also shifted other expenses from the city budget to CPS. Those include non-teacher pensions — a cost that has grown every year and which CPS officials project to reach $315 million by 2026 — and crossing guards and school police officers, worth $30 million combined. The mayor gave CPS more TIF dollars but not enough to cover the shifting costs.

“When you’re taking these dollars off the top, whether they were created by a pension holiday 30 years ago, or [non-teacher pensions], which has happened in my time here … you can’t pass us a cost without also allowing us the ability to raise those revenues as necessary,” said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, referencing Lightfoot’s moves and a maneuver by mayoral candidate and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas to fund operations using money meant for pensions.

Only an influx of federal pandemic relief funding saved CPS from earlier deficits and “papered over” existing funding problems, Martinez said. He said he’s ready for a fight for state funding but wouldn’t say what the district’s alternatives are if the state doesn’t help. It would appear budget cuts are the next likely answer.

In its $9.4 billion budget this year, $6.5 billion directly went to schools while $1 billion paid for pensions, $762 million paid off debt, $645 million funded capital projects and $400 million paid for central and regional office staff and expenses.

Martinez defended the district’s spending, saying most CPS students need wraparound support to succeed given high levels of poverty and trauma — and for the longest time they haven’t gotten it. The district this year has funded arts programs, tutoring and smaller class sizes to address longtime challenges made more difficult during the pandemic.

Though Martinez didn’t address him by name, Vallas has repeatedly claimed that the district is bloated and doesn’t need to spend as much on staff and resources as it does.

“I don’t want the narrative out there — I’ve heard it a little bit — of, ‘Well, the district is overspending, they have so few children and they have so many adults,’” Martinez said. “Frankly, this is what we should’ve had all along. It took a global pandemic to do it. Again, we’re not going to apologize for that.”

The need for money for repairs was front and center Wednesday at a news conference ahead of the school board meeting and during the public comment portion of the meeting.

A teacher from Carver High School said athletic fields are so bad they can’t play home games there and have to spend limited cash on buses. A parent with children at Washington Elementary on the Southeast Side said a piece of a ceiling fell out. “We call on the school district to fund a new green school building immediately,” she said.

And at Tilden Career Academy, the bathrooms and water fountains are often closed because the plumbing needs upgrades. Community member Vincent Gray noted the school district is planning on building a new $150 million high school on the Near South Side not far from Tilden.

“I am humbly requesting that money being used to build the new school be redistributed to Tilden,” Gray said.

State law requires CPS to complete a 10-year master facilities plan this year. A group of teachers asked CPS on Wednesday to be included in that planning. CPS officials said they are completing assessments of the schools and will start community hearings soon.

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