CPS boosts school budgets with focus on special education — and more property taxes

Buoyed in part once again by federal COVID-19 relief funding, Chicago Public Schools will spend about $220 million more in the 2023-2024 school year to hire teachers and other support staff.

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CPS CEO Pedro Martinez Mayor Brandon Johnson

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez (left) and Mayor Brandon Johnson released the first school budgets under the new mayoral administration Tuesday. Most schools saw gains.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago is boosting funding for the vast majority of its public schools next fall with a particular focus on special education — and with the help of its yearly property tax increase.

The Chicago Public Schools system’s spending will remain steady at $9.4 billion in the 2023-2024 school year, but more money will go directly to schools, figures released Tuesday show.

Buoyed in part once again by federal COVID-19 relief funding, CPS will spend about $220 million more in the 2023-2024 school year to hire teachers and other support staff as students continue their pandemic academic recovery. These budgets represent the funding CPS is giving its principals, who will decide what staff to hire next school year.

CPS also is issuing its highest allowed property tax increase of 5%, or about $131 million, to help support its budget. Property taxes are the school system’s largest revenue source with state funding still falling about $1.4 billion short. But CPS-issued increases — a routine yearly occurrence — have often gone under the radar compared to those at the city level.

Most of the new money is going toward special education services, where CPS plans to add $126 million, granting about 85% of schools more special education funding. Officials said any special ed cuts are due to shifting enrollment. Special ed services have been troubled at CPS for years — and the school system’s top official in that area resigned this week amid the department’s latest reprimand.

About 90% of 499 schools city wide are getting more total funding next school year than in the year that just ended, ranging from an additional $1,075 to $3.9 million. The remaining 10% of schools are facing cuts from $544 to $400,745, largely because of significant enrollment losses.

“This proposed budget is a step toward fulfilling CPS’ commitment to providing resources for every school community so that our students are healthy, safe, engaged and on the path to long-term success,” Johnson said in a statement. “This investment in our children is not only an investment in a stronger future for them and their families but is essential to living up to Chicago’s promise as a world-class city.”

To avoid ballooning the overall $9.4 billion budget — which also includes pension payments, central office staff salaries and expenses tied to CPS’ significant debt — officials presented a scaled-down $155 million capital budget plan that will address emergency facility needs to have schools ready for the fall. In past years, the capital plan was released later in the summer and detailed more substantial construction projects. Last year it was $765 million. Officials said they’ll present a plan for more capital funding later this year.

While 25 schools are facing cuts of at least $75,000, the increase in spending at most schools is welcome news compared to last year, when CPS faced protests over its funding allocations. Mayor Brandon Johnson was a Chicago Teachers Union official last year, and more recently campaigned on infusing under-resourced neighborhood schools with more funding. He had little time to influence a budget process that started late last year, months before he was inaugurated in May, but Johnson will be happy to to avoid trouble in his first major education announcement after teachers heavily backed his candidacy.

Johnson also vowed on the campaign trail that he would avoid raising property taxes that he claimed were squeezing the middle class out of Chicago. But CPS is allowed to raise taxes by the lesser of inflation or 5% — and is again doing just that. Inflation this year was calculated at 6.5%, so CPS will take in a 5% — or $131 million — increase. That falls in line with previous years. CPS has raised property taxes every year for the last decade.

Johnson’s senior adviser Jason Lee portrayed the new mayor as powerless to stop the “tax-to-the-max” increase.

“The mayor didn’t appoint a single person on the school board. These aren’t the mayor’s appointees,” Lee said. “At the end of the day, there’s been a budget process that was operated under a different regime with different assumptions. Now, it’s the 9th inning. ... This is the end of the budget process.

“This is not an act of the Johnson administration ... All we can do is look forward to the elected school board and whatever intermediary board that we have,” said Lee.

Enrollment has remained a big challenge and makes running schools more costly. The school system has had to grapple with plummeting student populations over the last two decades, falling from over 400,000 students to 322,000 this year.

CPS for the last 10 years has funded its schools on a per pupil basis — more students equals more money, and fewer kids means budget cuts. But CPS has begun moving away from that formula — called student-based budgeting — in recent years in an attempt to stop harming schools that lose kids for factors outside their control, like population declines in their neighborhoods.

That shift continues in these new budgets, where 39% of the funding is allocated through student-based budgeting, down from 46% last school year.

Instead, CPS is adding money based on student needs and providing guaranteed funding for certain teaching and support positions. CPS also is giving money to most schools that are losing students to soften that blow.

Similar to last year, CPS officials prioritized smaller class sizes, limited split-grade classrooms, arts classes, and intervention support to help kids through pandemic trauma and learning loss. More money is going toward hiring counselors, athletic directors, nurses and social workers.

“We’re grateful to be able to fund these priorities — this foundation for what all schools should and can expect to receive,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement.

CPS is hosting budget hearings noon-1:30 p.m. June 20; 6-7 p.m. June 21; and noon-1:20 p.m. June 23. The Board of Education is expected to vote on the budgets at its June 28 meeting.

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