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Advocates say CPS budget better than in recent past, but not transparent enough

File photo

File photo

The $7.9 billion budget that Chicago Public Schools’ officials will present for the Board of Ed’s approval Wednesday has improved over the last few years, special education advocates and the Civic Federation say –– yet concerns remain about its sustainability and transparency.

For the first time since 2011, the Civic Federation said it supports the school system’s budget, which has stabilized after years of precarious finances, thanks to an increase in state funding that gives the schools $111 million more than last year. CPS also has cut its reliance on short-term borrowing to pay the bills.

But the state funding now making up a third of CPS’ money is a double-edged sword, said Laurence Msall, Civic Federation president.

“Unfortunately, because Illinois continues to languish in its own financial crisis, state funding will remain a source of uncertainty for CPS and other districts,” Msall said.

Msall is also concerned that CPS will borrow $750 million of the nearly $1 billion it plans to spend on capital projects announced as Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces a crowded field of challengers. That’s on top of $8.2 billion in outstanding debt — plus the public has no way of knowing which capital projects get priority, according to the 96-page analysis.

“CPS’ finances have barely reached more stable footing,” Msall said. “This is not the right time to issue massive amounts of additional debt with only a portion going to the most critical facility needs.”

Access Living, one of the groups behind the investigation that led to a state monitor over all of CPS’ special education services, praised the $32 million in added spending on students with special needs, with 268 new positions, too. But the “ambitious proposal does not come with a thorough staffing plan considering the chronic shortage” of teachers and aides, the group wrote in its 30-page budget review.

Chris Yun, Access Living’s education policy analyst, also questioned when the school system would be able to fill those positions given Illinois’ chronic shortage of special ed teachers. After CPS officials announced in January 2018 that they’d hire 65 more special education positions, they filled only 25 of them by that May,” she said.

“We have one month to go, one month to fill those positions by the 2019 school year,” Yun said. “I don’t think they can fill it.”

As for the $1 billion in capital spending described as Emanuel and CPS CEO Janice Jackson as “unprecedented,” Yun said less than 1 percent — or only about $500,000 — was dedicated to making schools accessible to people with disabilities.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman said the schools system is “on stronger financial footing and able to present a budget that invests responsibly in school communities throughout the city.” He would not comment on any of the critiques.