Chicago Public Schools local school councils better put some budget money aside because some promised state aid — that doesn’t cover a $300 million gap — comes with strings attached.
That was the advice coming from experts at a budget forum Monday night.
“Can anyone convince me we shouldn’t set aside a pretty hefty sum” to avoid a repeat of last February’s midyear cuts, Amundsen High School representative Jeffrey Newman asked.
“I would establish a reserve,” Ralph Martire, of the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, told a crowd of more than 100 gathered at Amundsen High School. “I would create a small reserve, a 2 to 3 percent reserve for contingencies.”
Those contingencies may include $205 million from the state for teacher pensions that depends on “pension reform” by January, according to a bargain reached on June 30 by a stalled state Legislature.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” state Rep. Ann Williams said at the forum hosted by the parent group Raise Your Hand. Williams said no one has any specifics yet of what that reform will look like.
The state approved about $600 million in extra help for CPS, but the district still needs $300 million to fill its projected $1.1 billion budget gap — and won’t yet say how it plans to make up that difference.
Amundsen High School Principal Anna Pavichevich told the crowd she also advised a colleague to “put several hundred thousand aside because in February we may be in crisis.”
In an emailed statement, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said: “Springfield made a commitment — as agreed to by both chambers and Governor Rauner — that the state will pay for the annual costs of Chicago teachers’ pensions, just like it does for every other district in the state. CPS has been working closely with lawmakers since the spring session, and we will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.”
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool says the full operating budget will be balanced by August, in time for public hearings and a vote by the Board of Education before Sept. 1. He also has emphasized that the per-pupil rates announced last week would “protect classrooms” because they held steady from the middle of last year, when CPS cut budgets by almost 5 percent.
However, the per-pupil rates are lower than a year ago when principals and LSCs were making school-level spending decisions — $4,373 for children in kindergarten through third grade; $4,078 for fourth- to eighth-graders; and $5,068 for high school students.
Meanwhile, parents and council members say they don’t have a clear sense of how their budgets compare to any other schools — or to the start of last year — because CPS moved most special education funding to schools instead of paying for it centrally.
And that lack of transparency isn’t doing anyone any favors, the experts said. Parents and teachers need to understand what’s really going on at schools before principals announce possible layoffs.
So do the leaders doling out money, said Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, whose district includes Amundsen.
“My colleagues want some transparency, and they want some accountability,” Harris said. “It makes it a little harder for those of us who are trying to provide increased funding for the Chicago Public Schools not to have authoritative figures to rely on.”