The Chicago Board of Education approved an amended $5.5 billion operating budget for Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday but acknowledged more drastic changes could come next month after the governor blasted a $215 million hole in its budget.
Six of seven school board members present for the meeting also approved the contract reached in October with the Chicago Teachers Union, a deal that added $55 million in costs paid for with surplus tax increment financing money.
The school board has considered its budget balanced even though some $215 million for pension costs was never a guarantee from the state. And late last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed legislation that would have provided it.
School board president Frank Clark said he remained “optimistic” but acknowledged for the first time that the cash-strapped CPS may have to make other plans.
“There’s approximately another month in the 99th General Assembly, and until that ends, I expect the state will fulfill its promise and keep its word, and provide the necessary funding for Chicago children,” Clark said. “If for whatever reason the unthinkable occurs, we are prepared to deal with another amended budget at our next regular board meeting in late January.”
The district wouldn’t discuss any possible cuts, saying they expect legislators to come through. CEO Forrest Claypool also renewed the possibility of filing a lawsuit he had prepared in June while waiting to see if legislators would approve hundreds of millions in state aid, including the pension money. The district isn’t in any kind of financial shape to be able to borrow the money.
“We expect them to treat children in Chicago like they treat children in every other part of the state of Illinois.” Clark continued, referring to the vastly larger amounts the state pays toward teacher pensions in every other public school district but Chicago’s.
Further cuts would devastate schools that have already felt the brunt of budget woes, from lower per-pupil funding rates that have spiked competition for students, especially as enrollment drops.
And now that CPS expects principals to figure out how to pay for special education services with money lumped in with general education money, some kids are getting shortchanged.
CPS withheld 4 percent of each school’s budget so it could move money around as special ed kids moved, or as schools appealed for special help. Of at least $18.9 million held back, only $2.8 million has gone back to 31 schools who had appeals granted, about half those that filed formal appeals, according to Liz Keenan, second in command in CPS’ special education department.
Langston Hughes Elementary School’s appeal was rejected, said Katie Osgood, a special education teacher in the Far South Side school whose special needs students make up a quarter of the population.
“The principal is capable. She’s a good leader. She did what you said. She funded special education first,” Osgood said.
When a kindergarten class then had 46 kids, she moved teachers around, changing schedules and homerooms, she said.
The changes led to some students having “serious but predictable social-emotional breakdowns as well,” Osgood said.
Several typically silent board members seemed touched by the special education testimony.
“The level of frustration on parents’ and teachers’ parts is pretty significant and that it gets to this point where it has to be publicly rehearsed is concerning,” said the Rev. Michael Garanzini. ”Systems aren’t in place to kind of deal with some of this. . . . There really are not enough people in the schools to deal with the kinds of issues that are common today. These are kids with PTSD, and it’s not just a local problem but it’s certainly our problem.”
Many speakers urged CPS to go after new kinds of revenue instead of just cutting.
“Use your clout,” said Catherine Hencheck, mom of a special education student at Vaughn Occupational High School. “And you’ve got to have clout, because you’re an unelected school board.”
Amid the district’s fiscal instability, the last remaining applicant to open a new charter school withdrew its bid on Friday. Eight operators had applied to open 13 campuses, but one by one, dropped out.
On Wednesday, the school board renewed the operating charters of 10 private operators albeit with a number of conditions for each one. Saying they weren’t finalized, the board would not release those conditions that include changes to disciplinary practices, updating buildings to meet ADA requirements, or “improving resources to ensure all students can access a high quality education.”
Dozens of parents and students urged the board to give their schools a new three- or five-year term, with stories of how one-on-one attention, caring teachers and dedicated staff led to their children’s success.