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Board of Ed approves 2018-19 schools budget over objections

Christine Dussault, a teacher at Chase Elementary School, speaks about the capital budget plan at a Chicago Board of Education meeting on July 25, 2018. | Rahul Parikh/ Sun-Times

Over a slew of objections about where the money would be spent, Chicago’s Board of Education unanimously voted on Wednesday to approve $7.6 billion in operating and capital budgets for the upcoming school year.

The $5.9 billion operating budget is structurally balanced for the first time in two years, thanks to a new state funding formula that benefits Illinois’ largest district, which will project a cash surplus of $232 million once the books are closed on the 2017-18 school year, also an anomaly in recent years. Such a vote, as CPS begged the state for help for the last few years, hasn’t been taken before August since 2014.

But the plans laying out CPS’ spending still depend on massive amounts of borrowing, including much of the $989 million that district officials and a mayor facing reelection have pledged toward capital projects, including two new high school buildings. That borrowing comes on top of some $8.2 billion in existing debt, as the Civic Federation has noted, though CPS’ budget director said Wednesday that CPS was able to cut its dependence on the kind of short-term borrowing akin to using credit cards by about half a billion dollars.

CPS’ pension contribution continues to grow, topping $804 million this year, with just $239 million of that coming from the state.

Needed increases in special education spending still haven’t offset years of cuts, CEO Janice Jackson said. Amid questions of how quickly some 268 new case manager and social worker positions would be filled so they can benefit children, CPS’ special education chief Liz Keenan admitted they likely wouldn’t be in place for the first day of school, saying, “that’s going to be more of a year-long process to fill those positions.”

In the hours leading up to the vote, a steady stream of parents, students and teachers asked the school board to delay the capital vote, saying the public didn’t know how the projects were chosen nor were they equitably distributed, according to a ward-by-ward analysis done by the University of Illinois at Chicago showing massive geographic disparities in where capital investments between 2013 to 2018 were made.

Criticism came from an unlikely source: The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, a group that long pushed for and won a new high school for the greater Chinatown area. CPS will put that school in National Teachers Academy Elementary’s building, saying last year it lacked enough money to build new.

Yet now, there’s somehow money for two more new high schools in the capital budget, the Coalition’s Debbie Liu said.

“The conversion of NTA caused turmoil and now a lawsuit against CPS rather than being a cause for celebration,” she said. “This turmoil … could have been prevented if CPS led a transparent and authentic community-led longterm based planning process.”