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Latest Big Enrollment Drop For Chicago Schools Drives Down Budget

Updated at 7:15 P.M.

Another big drop in student enrollment is projected for the Chicago Public Schools this year, resulting in less money for the city's more than 500 district-run schools, CPS officials said on Thursday. 

CPS officials estimate 8,000 fewer students will enroll in the schools next school year. District officials gave principals their budgets Thursday but plans to release them publicly were delayed by technical difficulties, CPS officials said. This is the latest school-based budgets have been released to principals in recent memory. 

Separate from the enrollment drop, CPS plans to boost per pupil spending by about $200 this year to $4,390. That’s good news for principals who need the money to cover staff raises promised in contracts approved last year. Still, overall school spending will be $43 million less than last year — nearly $2.3 billion total — primarily because of the enrollment drop but also because the school district is expecting less federal money.

For the third year in a row, CPS crafted a budget that counts on state money that may never materialize. This year, CPS is assuming an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula will become law and deliver an extra $300 million to Chicago. Lawmakers passed the bill in May but Gov. Bruce Rauner says he will veto it. He calls it a “bailout” for the school district.

According to Rauner’s office, CPS would get $145 million less after his veto.

For the past two yeas, schools have been stung by midyear budget cuts after state money did not come through, leading some principals to anticipate cuts as they build their budgets. State payments to all Illinois school districts are due by Aug. 10, ramping up the pressure on state leaders to quickly resolve this issue.

Some superintendents have said they won’t be able to open without the state money. Chicago Schools Chief Forrest Claypool said the district is in better shape. 

“We are going to make sure that for this school year our schools open and remain open,” he said during a budget briefing Thursday. “We will do whatever is necessary to make that happen, despite the very difficult fiscal position we have been put in because of the dramatically unequal state funding.” 

Claypool declined to say whether CPS will have a deficit this year, nor would he say whether he is also expecting the City of Chicago to provide additional revenue. The answers to those questions will come on Aug. 7 when the full CPS budget will be released. 

Claypool also said CPS should not be blamed for its enrollment decline, noting that it is part of a statewide trend, driven in part by people having fewer babies. But others say budget cuts in recent years, along with the instability caused by the ongoing fight with Rauner over money, is driving families away. 

If projections are correct, CPS’ student population will be about 373,000 this fall — a nearly 50,000 student drop since 2005. 

Much of the enrollment decrease has been in black neighborhoods on the South and West sides. As it has done in recent years, the school district will provide extra money to schools hit the hardest so that they can provide basic levels of instruction. 

The per pupil stipend of $4,390 makes up the bulk of what each school receives. On top of that, schools get additional money or positions for administrators, support staff and special education, among other things. 

In descripting its budget Thursday, CPS officials also said once again they will change how special education is funded. The district will provide more money for staff working in programs for severely disabled students.

CPS also will will end an unpopular practice started last year. The district withheld 4 percent of each school’s special education money and required principals to appeal to get it. This year, all money will distributed up front.

A WBEZ analysis of CPS data found that almost 200 principals appealed but only $3.5 million of $20 million available was doled out to 43 schools. The analysis also showed that the small number of white, middle-class schools got money back more often than did majority poor, black and Latino schools.

Last year, school district leaders were sharply criticized when they overhauled how special education dollars were given to schools. Rather than separate money for special education students, principals were given a lump sum of cash and told to use it to pay for both general education and special education students.

CPS principals said this year they were told precisely how much they must spend on special education. Still, some principals told WBEZ they are not sure they can cover all expenses with the money allotted. If not, they will again have to reach into money allocated for general education students.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation

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