Board of Education approves 'stop-gap' budget for 2015

July 24, 2014

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)
Students with the group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education advocate for more funding to implement restorative discipline.

Last-minute pleas by parents, teachers, and budget watchdog groups didn’t sway the Chicago Board of Education from unanimously approving its $6.8 billion spending plan for next school year.

The budget cuts 59 full-time librarian positions, eliminates the district’s last electricity vocational program, adds more funding for privately run charter schools and expands safe passage.

Like in previous years, pretty much everyone who spoke at the monthly board meeting yesterday did not like the spending priorities in the budget. Even board members could see that the budget didn’t address the long-term structural deficit facing Chicago Public Schools.

“The fact is we’re spending more money than we’re really getting in the door,” said board member Andrea Zopp.

“I’m going to vote for this budget, but it is a budget that is balanced by this one-time use of funds,” said board member Henry Bienen. “I would call it a stop-gap budget.”

CPS budget director Ginger Ostro took aim at Springfield in her presentation to the board at the start of the meeting. She said in order for the district to be financially viable in the future, state officials need to increase the amount of money they give districts per student.

Ostro said CPS also needs pension reform, but she didn’t give any specifics on what that might look like. The district is required to pay an additional $70 million into the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund next year. The fund is severely underfunded after almost a decade of no contributions from the district combined with lower than expected returns.

It remains unclear what effect the recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling in Kanerva vs. Weems could mean for the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. That ruling found the pension reform for suburban and downstate teachers is unconstitutional.

About an hour into the meeting Wednesday, a physical altercation broke out when a person in the audience, parent activist Rousemary Vega, began booing Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz, who had gotten up out of his seat. Vega and her husband were carried out of the board chamber by almost a dozen security guards.

Last vocational electricity program cut

With Wednesday’s board vote, the city lost its last electrical shop program, currently housed at Simeon Career Academy, in the 21st Ward.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) pleaded with board members to keep the program going.

“Electricity is not a whip and buggy,” Brookins said. “Those jobs are going to be around for at least the immediate, foreseeable future. And so to eliminate this program seems to be misplaced.”

Brookins says he wants all students to go to college, but for those who don’t, he wants training that will help them get a good job that pays a living wage. At the very least, Brookins asked CPS to let currently enrolled students complete their degrees.

CPS officials said the principal at Simeon ended the Electricity program because only 18 incoming freshman selected it as their top choice major in the school’s vocational program. However, Brookins said there were more than 50 upperclassmen enrolled.

No money for new Code of Conduct

Last month, the board approved a new Student Code of Conduct that focuses more on restorative discipline and less on suspensions and expulsions.

Before the meeting started this month, a group of students involved with the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education held a press conference pushing CPS to “put their money where their mouth is” when it comes to having more restorative discipline in schools.

“In my school, there seems to be a new security guard every week, but we don’t have music class, no library, no college and career center and only one counselor for the whole school,” said Devonte Boston, a senior at Gage Park High School.

The students successfully helped CPS revise the Code of Conduct, but they say money is needed to properly implement it. So does Michael Brunson, the recording secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union.

“I’ll mention restorative justice around members and their eyes will start rolling and then I know I have to stop and say, ‘OK, this is what its supposed to be. Now, what you have experienced is just words with no substance,’” Brunson said. “If you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to have the personnel, the space and all the resources that you need to really roll out a program.”

Pleas to halt expansion of Concept Schools

A number of speakers Wednesday said the board should halt the opening of two new schools run by Concept Schools.

Concept is currently under FBI investigation in several states. The leaders have close ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood sent a statement to reporters after the meeting saying Concept continues to move forward with its plan to open this fall. It will open in a former Evangelical Christian building at 9130 South Vincennes Ave, he said.

Becky Vevea is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.