Our Pledge To You

News

CPS massive budget, borrowing pass despite giant ‘ifs’

Chicago Board of Education President Frank M. Clark speaks to Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool during a Chicago Board of Education meeting on Aug. 24, 2016. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Chicago homeowners will see their property taxes rise thanks to unanimous votes Wednesday by the Board of Education — and possibly even greater cuts to schools if either of two big question marks in Chicago Public Schools’ budget get answered with a no.

All six of seven Board members present voted to approve $5.4 billion in operational spending, a $250 million property tax hike that pays directly into burgeoning teacher pensions, nearly $1 billion in borrowing for capital projects and $1.5 billion in short-term loans needed to pay bills through next spring’s tax season.

Balancing the budget relies on about $200 million from Springfield, where legislators have to pass a still amorphous “pension reform” by January and on $31 million in concessions from a Chicago Teachers Union that’s starting to prepare its logistics for a possible strike this fall. Those two reasons prompted the business-backed government watchdog Civic Federation to decry the budget as short-sighted.

The tax hikes in total are expected to cost the owner of an average $250,000 home about $245 more per year. And still the country’s third largest district anticipates needing half a billion more than last year in borrowed cash to keep its doors open.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool thanked taxpayers for shouldering the burden of the budget he says spares students.

Board president Frank Clark called the new taxes a relative bargain, making the district’s budget chief work out the math of how much less than $1 a day the taxes will cost the average homeowner.

Board members had few factual questions about the budget during the meeting. And afterwards, Gail Ward and Mark Furlong declined to comment on their votes, but the Rev. Michael Garanzini said he had faith in state leaders to come through to keep the budget balanced. The Jesuit priest also said he’s prayed a lot this year to St. Jude, the Catholic patron saint of impossible causes.

“It’s just balanced if all these things come true,” he said. “We have to start this way, otherwise we would be responsible for more cuts, in anticipation of money that may or may not come. So we don’t want to budget that way. So we’re budgeting as wisely as you possibly can given the fiscal climate and fiscal challenges that we face.”

The Board voted after hearing fierce criticism that the district was not keeping its financial woes away from children.

Librarian Nora Wiltse said that in recent years, the number of her colleagues staffing school libraries has dropped from about 450 to less than 160 budgeted for the upcoming year in the 500-plus schools CPS operates. She said schools could afford more librarians if the district spent less on superfluous standardized tests and opening new schools while enrollment keeps slipping.

Special education students seemed to be most at risk.

DePriest elementary school teacher Tammie Vinson told the board members that her special ed kids didn’t get enough legally required minutes of services last year.

“You’re asking everyone to accept some accountability but when will you?” she said. “We have shared more than enough of the sacrifice. When we talk about taxpayer burden, it’s also our burden.”

Since CPS now lumps special education money into school budgets, parents and even professional advocates have complained they struggle to track changes to it. .

CPS is working to improve the way the public understands special ed spending, CPS budget director Matt Walter told the Board.

An unusually tearful Ald. Sue Sadlowski Garza (10th) questioned the overall credibility of the district, with the longtime school counselor bemoaning the effects of budget woes on students and on veteran teachers who’ve been laid off. Garza is sponsoring a widely-supported bill in the City Council that’d automatically give tax increment financing surpluses to the schools system.

That’s a bill none of the board members said they’d back for the district that considers TIF money “unsustainable” despite squeaking a budget through the last several years using one-time budget tricks such as collecting tax revenue for 14 months to pay 12 months’ expenses.

“CPS has created a culture of distrust, and parents and teachers and students don’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth anymore,” Garza said, her voice wavering. “You tell us things and you turn around the do exactly the opposite.”

“I agree there’s a credibility gap,” Clark said. And the audience laughed.