CPS 'accounting adjustment' will increase funding to schools slightly; watchdog warns it's 'financially irresponsible'

Funding to schools will go up by at least $250 per child; schools losing enrollment will see cuts.

April 10, 2014

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Despite looming pension payments, and as the district still reels from budget cuts and layoffs, Chicago Public Schools says it has found a way to slightly increase the amount schools get for each student next year.

The move was immediately criticized as “financially irresponsible” and an “accounting gimmick” by the Civic Federation, a financial watchdog. And parents, while happy schools will get more money, say the increase is not enough to make up for cuts that reached into the millions of dollars at some schools this year. 

The district says it’s making an "accounting adjustment." It plans to give itself a 14-month window to take in revenue next fiscal year, so state and county tax payments that come in during August will still be counted as if they came in before July 1, allowing the district to balance the books and avoid what it says would be “draconian cuts.” It’s at least the third consecutive year CPS has used a one-time fix to come up with a balanced budget.

School officials say the change allows the school district to give schools about $250 dollars more per child. That adds up to around $135,000 dollars at an elementary school of 500 students.

The increase comes in the same fiscal year as Chicago’s mayoral race.

School officials acknowledged the accounting shift does nothing to fix what everyone agrees is a structural deficit, with CPS taking in far less revenue than it spends. The situation has become more acute recently as pension contributions have ballooned, forcing layoffs and deep classroom cuts.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to keep … our kids going,” said board president David Vitale, who spoke to WBEZ and Catalyst Wednesday on a conference call. Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times education reporters were briefed on a separate call, earlier.

“What we’ve done is essentially pull additional revenue in from a future year to continue roughly at the level that we’ve been at,” said Vitale. “The structural deficit has not gone away with this effort. So we absolutely need pension relief to address the structural deficit.”

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, called the budget move “expensive,” “financially irresponsible,” and an “accounting gimmick.” 

“This is a short-term answer to a complicated long-term problem,” said Msall. “And it doesn’t make the problem smaller and it doesn’t make the problem go away, it just exacerbates the 2016 budget.”

The district plans to spread to all schools a pot of $65 million that last year was used to help certain schools transition to the district’s new per pupil funding system. And it's adding an additional $70 million to that for student-based budgeting.

Schools could still face cuts if they lose enrollment. A dozen new schools have permission to open this fall, which will drain students from existing schools. And enrollment districtwide has been declining. Low enrollments are hitting high schools particularly hard; WBEZ has reported that some are struggling to staff classes. Neighborhood high schools that got transition money to help them through this year could be learning of cuts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars this week.

Wendy Katten, director of the citywide parent group Raise Your Hand, applauded the increase in per pupil funding, but says it will restore less than half of what her son’s school lost. “We’ll be able to purchase a teacher and maybe something else, but it’s not going to restore the cuts.

“I think people will still be pushing for a further increase,” said Katten, who was one of nearly two dozen parents from different schools who appealed to board members this winter to raise the per pupil funding rate. “There are new mandates for PE and art, which are great things. But they require money.”

Katten says she’s also concerned the per pupil increases may barely cover raises for teachers.

School officials say they are setting the following per pupil rates for the 2014-15 school year. The rates apply to both district schools and charters.

Grade level

Per pupil amount for 2014-15

Increase over 2013-14

Kindergarten-3rd grade

$4,697

$267

Grades 4-8

$4,390

$250

High School

$5,444

$310

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