PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday July 23rd, 2014, 6:21pm

Chicago Board Of Ed Approves Budget, Debate Over School Funding Rages On

The Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved the school district's controversial $5.8 billion spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year that cuts the budgets of traditional neighborhood schools and boosts funding for charters. Progress Illinois provides highlights from today's board of ed meeting.

The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously approved the school district's controversial $5.8 billion spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year that cuts the budgets of traditional neighborhood schools and boosts funding for charters.

As Jennie Biggs with the Raise Your Hand education coalition put it at today's board meeting, "This budget, again, creates winners and losers in terms of funding, but no real solutions on how to create equitable and high-quality education for each and every child in (Chicago Public Schools)."

The budget relies on short-term accounting moves to patch over a projected $876 million deficit, including expanding the length of time in which the district collects property taxes. Through this one-time fix, the district will collect about $650 million in property taxes for an additional 60 days after the end of the fiscal year.

"We've proposed extending the district's revenue recognition period, and while this one-time maneuver allows us to close the 2015 budget gap, it does not address our underlying fiscal challenges," CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said at the start of the meeting.

The district, Byrd-Bennett said, will ultimately need increased state funding and pension reform to achieve long-term fiscal stability. The district’s pension contribution in 2015 will be $634 million, the largest single-year pension obligation CPS says it has faced.

"Pension reform is our best hope to protect the investments we've made in the classrooms and to ensure we continue to see the gains in our graduation rate and increases in student achievement," the CPS CEO said. "It is also critical that pension reform will help us ensure that teachers have the retirement security on which they can rely."

In all, the district is using $916 million in one-time resources to balance the budget, said CPS budget director Ginger Ostro.

"This budget allows us to move forward for one more year, but we must find the real solution (to achieve) long-term financial stability for the district and protect the resources that support the education of Chicago's next generation," she said. "These solutions lie in pension reform and revenue."

Following the district's budget presentation, board member Henry Bienen expressed concerns about the reliance on one-time budget fixes.

"Recognizing revenue at a different point in the year is not the creation of new revenue," he said. "So nothing is happening to the structural deficit ... You can't keep playing that game ... I'm going to vote for this budget, but it's a budget which is balanced by these one-time use of funds, plus it's a budget which could ... lead to downgrading of bonds in the future ... That's very worrisome."

Two groups, including Access Living and the Civic Federation, issued separate, scathing analyses of CPS' budget yesterday. Neither group supported the spending plan. The report from Access Living, an advocacy group for the disabled, stated that “this budget does not even attempt to formulate a plan to address the structural deficit the district is faced with.” A representative from the Civic Federation, a non-partisan government research organization, called the spending plan "yet another misguided budget that fails to address the alarmingly clear message that the district’s current cost structure is unaffordable."

Charter school investment

Under the budget, administrative and central office expenses are reduced by $55 million in order to keep cuts away from the classroom, Byrd-Bennett said. Also, CPS is expanding the Safe Passage program by $1 million, placing 84 new arts teachers and 84 physical education instructors in schools and creating a new SAFE School for 150 students expelled due to violence, among a number of other investments.

But the budget will decrease district-run school funding by $67 million and increase it by $62 million for charters. The funding difference is due mostly to declining enrollment projected at traditional CPS schools and increased enrollment at charters. CPS uses a per-pupil budgeting formula, which provides funds to schools based on how many students are enrolled.

In the upcoming year, charters are expected to see overall enrollment increase by 3,400 students, while enrollment at traditional schools is projected to drop by 4,000 students.

"Any investment in the charter sector is merely the result of money following the child," said Andrew Broy with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

"There's been some coverage in the last couple weeks alleging that the charter-school sector is being invested in at the expense of the district-run sector," he added. "That's simply not true in the current budget."

But others in the audience saw the funding disparity differently.

"Despite the fact that we have two charter operators under investigation, we've seen a $62 million increase in the charter schools and a $67 million cut to neighborhood schools, reflecting the priorities of the board," said Theodore Roosevelt High School teacher Timothy Meegan. "Our school, Roosevelt High School, has seen in two years over $1.8 million in cuts despite the fact that we've only seen 99 students decrease over those same two years."

Public outcry for attention and resources

Before opening the meeting for public comment, Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale said he and the other board members "do recognize the challenges and the structural deficit that the district faces."

"It is not an easy decision ... to look past, at least for one more year, the true fiscal challenges that this district faces," he said. "That needs to be stacked up against the interest of our children and their education."

Later during public comment, education activist Rousemary Vega interrupted the meeting from her seat and booed the board. She was apparently upset because board member Jesse Ruiz briefly stepped out of the room during public comment. She was slated to speak soon and apparently wanted him to hear her comments. The situation escalated after CPS security apparently asked Vega and those with her to leave the board chambers. No one was arrested in connection with the scuffle, according to Chicago police news affairs. Progress Illinois captured some of the incident:

A number of people, including Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), also spoke out at today's meeting about the recent elimination of an electrician’s training program at Simeon Vocational Career Academy. The school's principal ended the program because not enough students were interested in it, CPS' chief officer of networks Denise Little explained at the meeting.

"The principal, along with the leadership team, held extensive information sessions with students in order to increase interest and participation of the program at Simeon," she added.

Brookins, however, urged the board to bring back the course. The alderman noted that Simeon's electrical program is the last of its kind in the CPS system.

"The decision to phase this out based on lack of interest, I think, is misplaced," the alderman said.

Ahead of today's meeting, a group of youth education activists applauded recent revisions to the school district's student code of conduct, but said CPS needs to "put its money where its mouth is" if it wants to get serious about using restorative justice in schools.

The changes to the school district's student code of conduct, which the Chicago Board of Education approved last month, limits disciplinary actions that take students out of the classroom, like out-of-school suspensions, and promotes restorative justice alternatives.

"We think it's a step in the right direction, but they just ain't putting their money where their mouth is," Gage Park High School senior Devonta Boston, a member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), said of the discipline changes.

"While CPS budgeted $99 million for the office of safety and security in 2015, schools will not receive any money to implement the revised student code of conduct," he added. "The office charged with implementing restorative alternatives has 35 employees, while the security office has 1,118 employees."

According to VOYCE's analysis, neighborhood high schools will also see their budgets reduced by a collective $54 million under CPS' 2015 budget.

"In my school, it seems that there is a new security guard every week, but we don't have no music class, no library, no college and career center, and only one counselor for our whole school," Boston added. "In CPS schools, there is one security guard for every 340 students, while each school counselor must support 525 students and each nurse must care for 2,180 students. Our schools are under resourced."

Michael Brunson, the Chicago Teachers Union's recording secretary, stood with the students and said there should be a restorative justice coordinator in every school.

"Let's get serious about this CPS," he stressed. 

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