Chicago’s Board of Education approved an amended operating budget on Wednesday that sends $38 million more to the city’s charter schools, up to $1.1 billion in bonds and millions more for consultants, including several closely linked to CEO Forrest Claypool.
But in a highly unusual vote for the appointed school board, the measure approving an additional $2.5 million for the consultants, including at least three who’ve worked for Claypool in the past and gave to his political campaigns, didn’t pass unanimously.
Arnaldo Rivera, who has worked at CPS and for the mayor, voted no, and former CPS principal Gail Ward abstained from this vote, as she did one year ago when the Board was asked to consider an $11.5 million spending bump on the same service providers.
Rivera declined to comment. Ward couldn’t be reached immediately.
Crowe Horwath LLP, KPMP LLP and UCG Associates have seen their billings skyrocket since Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent his longtime friend Claypool to CPS in 2015, even as spending on other such professional services dropped.
CPS now is authorized to spend up to $28 million on services such as audits, facilities analysis — and major changes to special education funding recently detailed by WBEZ. Sources had told the Sun-Times that finance chief Ronald DeNard and chief auditor Andrell Holloway had asked school board members for up to $8.5 million in private briefings earlier this month. CPS won’t say what happened, nor which of 43 firms approved to do such work will end up doing it.
Andrea Tolzmann was among many voices asking CPS leaders to fix delays in special education services and disparities among spending on white and on minority students, as WBEZ has found.
“For some reason this board continues to approve of spending tens of millions to consultants, contractors and and law firms who are politically linked to Claypool,” said Tolzman, a member of the parent group, Raise Your Hand. “On today’s agenda, Claypool is asking for another $2.5M for contractors. Please put brakes on this until this special education situation is sorted out.”
DeNard told the Board during a public meeting Wednesday that the private consultants have helped CPS save “roughly $87 million” out of about $200 million in savings the district has claimed doing audits and advising on payroll changes.
DeNard acknowledged that the role of such private firms wasn’t always aimed at saving money. Centralizing payroll is an example of how “in the long run, that helps schools out but it wasn’t always a dollar value play. Every contract was about helping us out financially but it wasn’t about how much money we saved.”
DeNard and other finance leaders also were quick to declare CPS’ budget balanced, saying a $1.1 billion deficit from 2015 has been closed thanks to new state revenue and “efficiencies.” Yet they’d called the budget balanced in each of the past two years though it depended on state money from the state that hadn’t yet materialized. This current budget still requires short-term borrowing, though about $1.3 billion now instead of a planned $1.5 million, DeNard said.
The school board also authorized the sale of $1.1 billion in bonds, about $600 million to refinance existing bonds at lower interest rate, plus $290 million in new bonds for capital projects including new roofs and windows, building maintenance and emergencies.