Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday August 2nd, 2013, 12:40pm

Parents Fire Back At CPS Over Budget Cuts At Riotous Public Hearing

A public hearing regarding the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) proposed $5.6 billion budget for next year quickly escalated into angry shouting just minutes into the district’s financial presentation.

The planned budget for the 2013-2014 school year includes some $68 million in classroom cuts, including teacher layoffs, in an effort to help close the district’s reported $1 billion budget hole.

CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley told the crowd that the district’s budget deficit is being driven largely by an increased pension payment it must make now that its three-year pension vacation has ended.

But the more than 100 community members at Thursday night's meeting, held at Truman College, were irritated by that answer, saying CPS should be looking into other revenue streams before making deep cuts to schools.

“How about TIFs,” one audience member shouted at Cawley, referring to tax increment financing (TIF) funds.

Education activists, more than 30 aldermen, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and others, have been calling on the mayor to declare a TIF surplus as a means to temporarily fund schools.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has reportedly discussed the TIF option with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but he has said the potential funding from a TIF surplus would not be enough to put an end to CPS’ budget woes.

Instead, Emanuel has said state lawmakers need to act on pension reform, an argument Cawley also made at the meeting.

“The pension increase that we’re facing this year is overwhelming,” Cawley said. “[Pension reform] is our one big prayer for the future.”

CPS officials say the district has to pay a $612 million pension payment this year, which is a $405 million increase from last year. Audience members continued to interrupt Cawley, but he continued speaking, saying they “can be disrespectful” or let him finish the presentation in order to get to public comment.

“This budget is disrespectful,” an individual at the meeting fired back.

In order to tackle the rest of its budget deficit, the district plans to hike property taxes to the maximum amount and use nearly $700 million in one-time reserves, while also cutting central spending by $112 million.

The district also recently moved to a per-pupil school budgeting system that it says will create greater funding consistency across schools and help lower its costs.

But declining enrollment in some schools means less per-student funds compared to schools with higher enrollment, such as the 51 welcoming schools that will take in students from 48 elementary schools that closed this year. As part of the school closings and budget cuts some 3,000 school employees have already been laid off.

The district handed principals their individual school budgets in early June.

“We’ve given that money to principals and said, 'you decide what’s right for your school,' so they put together a budget that makes the most sense for them,” Cawley said, to which audience members responded, “Are you kidding me?”

Christopher Ball, a member of Raise Your Hand For Illinois Public Education, said the group has calculated school cuts so far at $162 million based on the per-student funding system. He said Raise Your Hand has counted 92 schools losing art positions, 52 schools letting physical education staffers go, 54 schools cutting music positions and another 40 schools eliminating librarians.

“If this is supposed to help neighborhood schools, we’re not seeing the outcomes in this budget,” Ball said.  

Cawley really struck a nerve while discussing various investments the district is making for next year, including a $7.7 million expansion of its Safe Passage program. The program is being ramped up with 600 additional Safe Passage workers to cover routes for the 51 welcoming schools.

“You probably don’t have to worry about Safe Passage up in these neighborhoods,” Cawley said, which caused an uproar.

“How would you know,” one person at the meeting asked Cawley. Others said: “How insulting!” “How dare you?” “Oh my God!” and “Where are you from?”

“My son was shot and murdered near here. Don’t even go there,” said local resident Carol Keating-Johnson. “You don’t know what’s going on in these communities.” 

CPS parents and others continued to take school officials, and Emanuel, to task during public comment.

“Rahm Emanuel sold parents on the idea of a longer school day and only funded it for one year,” said Janet Meegan, a parent at Ellen Mitchell Elementary School.

She added that her school had to cut its longer school day staffer, who provided specialized reading time. Additionally, the school lost its librarian, and the art program is now only being funded by parent donations, higher student fees and one-time rollover costs.

“After this school year, we won’t be able to afford these programs anymore,” Meegan continued. “This is not what we were promised. This is choosing between art and music. You threw our principals on a sinking ship and told them the only way to keep afloat is to throw some positions overboard. And what do you think they’re going to pick?”  

Adenia Linker, a CPS parent with two children in selective-enrollment high schools, questioned the district’s pension problem, saying “I think this audience knows that’s ludicrous.”

“We were sold a longer school day when you knew we had a pension problem,” she continued.

Linker added that while the longer school day was mandated, Emanuel suggested TIF money should be used for a controversial DePaul University basketball arena near McCormick Place.

CPS’ budget process will conclude August 24. Cawley said the budget may be revised based on community input before the Chicago Board of Education votes on it at its next board meeting scheduled for August 28.

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