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CPS principals await budgets — later than ever, with uncertain funding

Chicago Public Schools principals are set Thursday to receive their school budgets — as late as they’ve ever gotten them, based on funding that includes $300 million the state hasn’t yet handed over.

And Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he’ll veto about $200 million of that.

The school budgets — essential for principals to be able to plan — are coming with only about a month until teachers and staff report back to work for the 2017-2018 school year.

CPS officials will brief principals at sessions they’ll hold throughout the day on Thursday at Westinghouse College Prep High School on the West Side.

Funds for general education students will still be allocated on a per-pupil basis.

Principals are concerned that this year’s rate must also cover new raises agreed to last October when the Chicago Teachers Union signed a new contract. Those raises are for cost of living, as well as for extra experience and education.

Last year’s rate — $4,087 for fourth- to eighth-graders at the start of school year — is less than when CPS’s “student-based budgeting” began in the summer of 2013 at $4,140. That figure has been raised just once — to $4,390 per student, for the 2014-15 school year, by just enough to cover raises promised to teachers in their contract. And it has since declined each year.

Enrollment also has steadily declined over the last several years then dropped by more than 10,000 students last year.

A source familiar with the budget said the overall per-pupil rate will be larger than last year’s but that schools also will see increases to personnel costs. District officials plan to retain past programs for helping schools with more expensive than average teachers or too few students to support a full range of courses.

Several school leaders, who didn’t have permission from CPS’ central office to speak to reporters, also told the Chicago Sun-Times that they expect changes in the way special education funding and staffers are allocated.

Last year, CPS stopped centrally assigning and paying for positions for special ed. students, instead giving principals a lump sum in their overall operating budgets,  with their general education funding. Parents and teachers complained that CPS was shortchanging students with special needs to balance its books and trying to hide that.

Unlike past years, only principals have been invited to Thursday’s sessions. They had to seek special permission to bring assistant principals or school clerks. That’s an added hurdle given that they will have just four business days to finalize their budgets and seek approval from their governing Local School Councils to meet a Wednesday deadline.

It’s not yet clear when school-by-school numbers will be released. A CPS spokeswoman declined to comment on budget specifics.

This marks the third straight year that CPS budgets have counted on money from Springfield the schools system doesn’t yet have. As a result, last year and the year before, schools faced mid-year budget cuts after hundreds of millions didn’t end up coming to CPS.

This year, most of the state’s 800-plus school districts are awaiting a new school-funding formula required, approved after legislators finally approved a budget for Illinois.

Gov. Bruce Rauner could still throw a wrench into Chicago Public Schools spending plans. | AP

Republican Rauner has threatened to veto the formula the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved, which aims to give poorer districts a bigger share of any new money for schools, calling it a “CPS bailout.”

The plan also provides $220 million for teacher pensions in Chicago, the only district in Illinois where teacher retirement pay isn’t funded entirely by the state. CPS paid a premium to borrow money to make a pension payment that was due June 30, and to get the new school year started.

The Chicago Teachers Union plans a 1 p.m. news conference Thursday to discuss school budgets.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. | Sun-Times files

On Wednesday, CTU president Karen Lewis repeated her earlier calls for “long-term financial stability for a system that has been shortchanged by Rahm and Rauner and their top emergency managers.

“Public school families and neighborhoods don’t need debt,” Lewis said. “They need sensible, responsible funding mechanisms for the schools our students deserve.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman