No further budget cuts for schools that didn't attract enough students

Chicago Public Schools spares schools $45.7 million in additional cuts.

September 24, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Handmade signs at Orozco Academy in Pilsen advertise for more students. Schools had feared their budgets would be slashed if they fell short of the number of students the district had projected for them.

UPDATED 9/25/13, 12:15pm: This story has been updated with new information from Chicago Public Schools. A prior version of this story understated the number of schools that were poised to lose funding. It also understated the total amount of money that schools could have lost had the district stayed with its original per-pupil plan.

Chicago is backing away from a plan that would have meant $45.7 million in additional budget cuts to schools.

Of the 507 schools run by the school district, 308 were poised to lose additional funding because they did not enroll as many students as the district had projected they would. Under a new per-pupil budgeting system being implemented this year, Chicago is giving each school money based on how many students it enrolls. Parents and teachers across the city were bracing for more cuts, but district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced Monday CPS will give schools a one-year reprieve.

“Those schools that did not meet their enrollment projections, we’re going to hold those schools harmless. They will receive the dollars that we assigned them based on the projected enrollment numbers,” said Byrd-Bennett.

Schools that surpassed their enrollment projections will get their per-pupil increase.

Byrd-Bennett said overall enrollment numbers were down and that the district was also off on “where children landed”—a chronic problem for Chicago, especially at the high school level. She said there are “social-cultural aspects of children coming to school” that mean some students don’t show up until well after the first day. She also said the district had a group of “lost children” who left eighth grade and have not entered high school.

The schools chief said the district would also back away from a plan to take an official enrollment count on the 10th day of school. Instead, Byrd-Bennett said the district will continue to use the date enrollment is historically checked, the 20th day. The district had said it wanted to nail down school budgets and make any necessary layoffs or staffing adjustments earlier this year, but saw things were still in flux two weeks into the school year.

“We’ve seen [enrollment] increases since the 10th day, but they’re not where we would have anticipated. And so rather than be punitive, we want to hold the schools harmless, let the schools move forward with opening their programs up, teaching their kids, getting the resources they need, and simultaneously using this year to better plan so we refine with greater precision the enrollment projections for next year,” said Bryd-Bennett.

The decision essentially means the district will be sending funding to local schools for students they don’t have, and potentially for students who are not even in the school system. CPS isn’t saying yet where that money will come from.

The district says it will release official enrollment figures for schools Tuesday.

Those numbers will likely highlight high schools that are severely under-enrolled. They may also show that designated “welcoming schools” that got millions of dollars in capital and technology upgrades actually took in far fewer children from closing schools than the district had projected they would.

Wendy Katten, cofounder of the parent group Raise Your Hand,  said  the announcement that schools will not be further cut doesn’t make up for deep cuts already enacted.

“Yes, it is good news, but it’s good news in the wake of horrible budget cuts,” said Katten. She said her complaint isn’t necessarily with student-based budgeting. “I’m worried about having a student-based budget dollar amount that’s completely insufficient. We can’t provide our students in the city with an excellent education when we’re talking about $4,140 in a core allowance in student-based budgeting.”

School officials have argued that the new budgeting system, being adopted by big-city school districts across the country, is more fair and transparent, since dollars follow children to whichever type of school they attend—traditional or charter. The budgeting system also allows principals more autonomy in determining how to spend funds.

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