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Charter, neighborhood school highlight funding disparity

Just 2 miles apart, West Side elementary schools Polaris Charter Academy and Gregory Academy, a neighborhood school, are similar in size and characteristics, with each expecting to enroll about six more students this fall than last.

Government funding for the schools, however, is heading in different directions: Polaris is scheduled to get $338,000 more, while Gregory takes a hit of about $184,000, according to Chicago Public Schools’ proposed budget for the upcoming school year. Both schools are set to receive more than $4 million in CPS funding.

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, money is supposed to follow students to their schools – institutions with growing enrollment get more; those with declining populations get less.

However, a Better Government Association analysis of the 2015-2016 school year budget shows a disparity between dollars flowing to charter schools – which are publicly funded but privately managed – and money being cut for traditional schools.

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Neighborhood and magnet schools are set to receive significant cuts in areas such as special education and busing, while charter schools are virtually untouched by these reductions, the BGA analysis found.

“We don’t want anyone to suffer budget cuts,” said Wendy Katten, director of Chicago public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand. “But if there needs to be cuts, why aren’t they distributed amongst all types of schools?”

Even with proposed reductions, including 1,400 planned layoffs, CPS says it will be $500 million in the red for the coming school year. Financial woes made it necessary to make the cuts proposed for the coming school year, district officials say. Those reductions – which represent a decline in spending from last school year’s actual expenditures – aren’t being felt by charter schools, however. In fact, charter schools are seeing more money for special education, the proposed budget shows.

CPS officials note that projected budgets can vary widely from what is eventually spent on schools in a given year because of unforeseen revenue. CPS objected to comparing end-of-year figures — what was actually spent — to the proposed amounts for next year, “because year-end budgets capture additional funding that comes in during the course of the year, including tens of millions of dollars in state and federal grants, funding for teacher leave, funds raised by individual schools and career and technical education,” said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner.

The result, Bittner said, is an “apples-to-oranges comparisons and faulty math that produces flat out false conclusions.”

However, CPS Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro and other CPS officials regularly refer to actual expenditures when they talk about budget cuts and other budget matters.

School officials also struggle to explain why charters are being spared drastic cuts seen at traditional educational institutions.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated — a system that’s been controversial in terms of transparency and political connections. The Emanuel administration plans to pump almost $640 million into charter and similar privately run public schools this year – roughly $11 million more than last school year – to serve a projected additional 2,700 students.

Meanwhile, neighborhood and magnet schools – which make up the vast majority of CPS – are scheduled to get $2.9 billion, a $146 million reduction compared with what was spent last school year.

That reduction in dollars to neighborhood schools is far greater than a loss of 4,000 students would indicate under the current funding policy. A final budget is expected to be approved by Aug. 26. (Three public hearings are scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 18.)

At Gregory Academy, 715 W. Polk St., Principal Donella Carter questions why her budget is being cut so much, despite projections that she’ll get more students.

Carter said she is still figuring out how she will deal with it, but thinks she might reduce staff and cut after-school programs, including sports.

Still, she hopes some other funding will come through. “I am hoping for some good news,” she said.

Ostro, the CPS chief financial officer, told Board of Education members in July the formula used to distribute money is complicated.

“We have many different models through which we distribute funding to schools,” Ostro said.

For years, charter school operators and advocates maintained they were not adequately funded and have successfully pushed CPS to increase their funding.

“We are getting close to parity,” Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy said.

But he said charters still want more money for facility costs.

Kennedy High School Principal George Szkapiak sees things differently: Charter schools are gaining at the expense of traditional schools, he said.

It is “critically important” to get a handle on how money is being distributed between the different categories of schools, said Szkapiak, who has fought attempts to locate a new charter school near Kennedy on the Southwest Side.

Kennedy is projected to get 46 more students this school year and yet it is budgeted for $15.4 million, a $304,000 cut from last school year.

“What happens when neighborhood schools take cuts? Is education enriched or diminished? It is diminished,” he said.

This column — a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times — was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp, who can be reached at (312) 525-3483 or skarp@bettergov.org.