Chicago enrollment dip doesn't cost principals

Neighborhood high schools take big hit on enrollment. Charters continue expansion.

September 26, 2013

WBEZ/Linda Lutton
Enrollment at Clemente High School is just 700. The school was expecting 830 students. The district has decided not to cut budgets at 308 schools that didn’t attract enough students this year.

Updated 9/27/13 11:50am

Principals at 308 Chicago schools are breathing a sigh of relief, even as the landscape of Chicago’s public school system continues to shift.

New enrollment figures show 60 percent of all district-run schools got fewer students than CPS had projected.  

Under a new per-pupil budgeting system the enrollment declines would have meant budget cuts at the school level this week.

But thanks to a decision by CPS to create a “transition year” to student-based budgeting, schools were “held harmless” and are being funded as if they had all the students they were projected to get.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Alice Vera, principal at De Diego in Humboldt Park. De Diego, a designated “welcoming school” that got 163 fewer students from closed schools than the district had anticipated.  That could have meant $720,000 in budget cuts.

Vera says she had made plans to cut as many as six teachers, but the continued funding allowed her to keep luxuries—like an art therapist who is helping with integration efforts between students from closed schools and longtime De Diego students.

“I don’t know if people really understand what this means to a school,” says Vera. “We are able to keep our class sizes low. We will still be able to have a reading coach and a math coach here in the school.”

Paying for it

Overall, the district will pay out $45.7 million to schools for students who are not there—and in most cases not even in the school district. Schools that gained in enrollment will be paid for each additional student—at a total cost of $18 million.

The district says the $45.7 million was originally in the budget. It says the $18 million is being covered through money in a contingency fund and further cuts to central office.

Laurence Msall, president of the budget watchdog Civic Federation, says it’s reasonable in the first year of student-based budgeting to try to assist schools that were not able to meet enrollment goals.

“But this comes on the back of a budget that has almost no reserves for contingencies,” says Msall. “It is a challenge to figure out how the district could come up with this money…when it faces a billion dollar deficit.”

And, Msall says, the district’s trend of declining enrollment has “enormous financial implications for the district.” Based on the school aid formulas at the federal and state levels, it will be a reduction in what’s available to the district.”

Enrollment shifts

In a surprise, the Chicago Public Schools got fewer children overall than it anticipated. District demographics officials had projected an enrollment of 405,519. But the final tally, taken Monday, the 20th day of school, was 400,545. District officials could not explain why they miscalculated how many students would show up overall, a figure they usually predict accurately.

Enrollment in the district’s privately run, publicly funded charter schools saw an uptick. Nearly 58,000 students are enrolled in charters, over 14 percent of all Chicago Public Schools students.

Like De Diego, other welcoming schools got fewer students than the district had counted on. Overall, 32 welcoming schools saw 1,658 fewer students than projected. (Seventeen others enrolled 327 more kids than projected.)

Neighborhood high schools saw the deepest enrollment declines. Hyde Park High School, for instance, only enrolled 1,001 students, 231 students shy of its projection, and 248 short of its enrollment last year. It would have had to cut $1.17 million from this year’s budget.

Of the city’s 50 neighborhood high schools, 70 percent did not meet their enrollment projections. Taken together, the neighborhood high schools account for 2,332 of district schools’ overall enrollment overprojection of 6,567 students. Enrollment-based budget cuts at the schools would have totaled $13.64 million.

In the 20 schools where the district was furthest off in its projections, all but two were either neighborhood high schools or schools affected by the latest round of school closings and shakeups.

At Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School, principal Marcey Sorensen says neighborhood school principals must adjust their budgets to their new enrollment reality.

“I think people have to sit down and really look at their budget and ask themselves, ‘How much of my money is really making it to kids, versus safety and security, versus clerical help?’ I think you have to kind of put it in a pie chart and say, ‘If I have X number of dollars, how am I spending it?’”  She doesn’t pay for anyone at Clemente to work the copy room, for instance—something the school could afford when the school—and budget—was larger.

Sorensen says she was prepared to cut $500,000 from her budget—she has 700 students but was budgeted for 830. She didn’t allocate additional money she had been given over the summer for fear she would lose it. Now, she says, “I have to tell you—I feel like I won the lottery.”

Sorensen says she won’t hire any personnel, to avoid having to let people go in a year when schools will be required to live within their means. Instead, she’ll pay for more lasting investments—technology upgrades and training for teachers.

Scroll down for Chicago Public Schools school-based budgeting “held harmless” and 20th Day enrollment data sets.

CORRECTION: A prior version of this story misstated the number of neighborhood high schools that met their enrollment projections, and an attached spreadsheet also misclassified some high schools. Both the text and the attached spreadsheet have been corrected. WBEZ regrets the error.

 

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation.