Kurt Jones has a unique perspective as Chicago schools confronts perhaps the most devastating budget cuts in a long time.
Jones has been principal of Libby Elementary School for the past nine years. Libby is in New City, a South Side community where 30 percent of people live below the poverty line and the per capita income is below $13,000.
But Jones is about to take the helm of Franklin Fine Arts Center on the Near North Side. As a magnet school, Franklin draws students from across the city, but only about 40 percent are low-income. Also, Franklin is in a wealthy area with a per capita income of $89,000 and less than 13 percent of people living below the poverty line.
Jones is also a parent. He and his husband have a 10-year-old son. Though he grew up poor in a trailer home in Peoria Illinois, he says he is now well-off.
Jones talked to WBEZ about how he sees the current financial picture of Chicago Public Schools.
Over the past few weeks, Chicago school principals were called into meetings with Chicago Public School leaders. Tell me about that meeting.
It was a very somber mood. I didn’t get the idea that anyone was BSing. I didn’t get the idea that anyone was nonchalant about what we are truly facing. After 10 years of these meeting, tone means a lot and the ambiance of the meeting says a lot. You couldn’t just leave this meeting and think, it is going to fix itself or this is a scare tactic or is it really that bad. Yes it is a scare tactic because it is going to get scary if we can’t get it fixed in the next three weeks.
Have you been to meetings like this in the past and, if so, was this different?
In the 10 years I have sat in this seat, I get the luxury of these meetings every year. In the last three years, they have been increasingly different and negative about the budget. This year we had so many budget impacts throughout the year already that you had evidence that this was different. I have never seen a situation in CPS where there is just no movement on the part of the state to get it right.
In the past, we have always been told it is going to be bad, it is going to be bad, but it is already bad. It has been bad all year.
This year have you had to trim or not spend money that you thought you could spend?
Absolutely. There is this philosophy: It is for the kids, use it, spend it. But we all know in personal budgets and organizational budgets once it is gone, it is gone. So the experience of sitting in this seat really saved me this year and more importantly saved my kids. I knew going in I couldn’t spend everything. The question was: What do I leave sitting in that savings account so that I don’t get in trouble in December? If I spend everything and the car goes broke… I don’t have the money to fix the car. So I had to use the same philosophy with my kids’ budget this year. I knew there had to be something saved because there was a very strong possibility with the state stance and the state stalemate that if I spent everything, then throughout the year I was going to be cutting classrooms. So I had to really think on so many different levels this year versus the past nine years.
What did you not do this year?
I would have loved smaller class sizes. I have a third grade class and a fourth grade classroom sitting at 32 and 33. I have an 8th grade class sitting at 34. That is not ideal. It is not. I would have loved to have gotten it down to the mid-20s. I would not have wanted all of my eighth graders sitting in one class when it is a very important crucial year. I was able to keep seventh grade small because it is their high school entrance year… everything they do this year determines their future so we, as a community decided where we needed to really, really put our focus there The truth of the matter is some kids got shortchanged. So if I am in seventh grade and I am in a class of 22 that is important. But what about third grade? What about eighth grade? I don’t imagine anybody thinks 34 14-year-olds in a classroom is good. My husband and I wouldn’t want it for our own child. We wouldn’t want it. I did have to make those choices this year to make classes extremely large and try to give teachers resources… thank GOD I have a strong staff because not every teacher can manage that, not every person can take that class size and make it work.
What will you recommend to the next Libby principal about how to handle 20 percent?
I chuckle, not because it is funny. I chuckle because that question is so crazy. They are not. What am I going to do? I don’t know… it impacts kids. There is no other question around it. What are you going to do with 20 percent less? Hello… What is anybody going to do with 20 percent less? Be put out. Be cut out. So I am going to make the best recommendations possible. I am not going to you know leave a sticky note that says, Good luck. What we are missing is the reality is you can only do what you can do with what you have and creativity only goes so far.
Is there anywhere for Libby to turn?
No. No… You have a community that is already struggling. If you go in an eight block, nine block radius of our school… that would answer the question simply no. Families are already struggling. They are depending on us to break the cycle with their children. You can be a millionaire. That is great. Money does not break the cycle. Education breaks the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. So if we can’t fund education, we are committed to say it is okay to keep kids in that cycle. My families are getting hit worse than anybody in the state for this budget stalemate. So can they say: Is their better future? Do my kids have a chance? Ten years from now, they become the adults and we blame them. But we don’t go back 10 years prior to acknowledge we really didn’t set them up right because we cut schools down to nothing.
My husband and I came from different backgrounds and economically we were completely different but one thing we share is education and that is how our paths met. My family is from a trailer park in Peoria, his is from a wealthy family in the Southern states. Money didn’t bring us together, but education did. So getting back to your question, can I reach out in the community? No. I can’t. I grew up in a community where we couldn’t give to the school, but we sure needed that school to give me the option to get out and do something and give back.
On the flip side, my husband and I continuously argue. He is ready to send our son to a private school setting because the doom and gloom is not what he wants for his son. I am a public education advocate, but every time we get a letter home asking to donate for this and do that… at some point, we funded the whole classroom for the year. Not only can I not go to my community because the resources aren’t there, on the flip side, my son’s family has the resources to do it, but we are also tiring out. At some point, why don’t we just go private and call it a day.
At Franklin, there is more opportunity to raise some money, to fill in those gaps, how much do you think you will wind up turning to parents?
At what point is it inappropriate to keep tapping into parents when public education, a well-oiled public education, is a right… it is a right, it is not a gift. I have already received three or four e-mails from Franklin parents that are looking at different options because they are afraid of what they are going to be asked to give to have their children in that school. I am continuously asking them to please be optimistic, please get involved in the 20 for 20… Let’s try to make this right before we flee. Do I lie and say we got this? No. I don’t. Do I be honest with them and say we probably going to have to pitch in? I do. How much? I don’t know… 20 percent… If we are going to get cut 20 percent, we are going to need 20 percent. Can we do it? Yes. Is it right? That is where I am getting ready to draw the line, is it right just because somebody can.
Are you optimistic that state lawmakers will help CPS?
I have been in the workforce for 26 years. I have never known people to get by with not getting things solved and still get a paycheck and still get to have their job. Shame on me if I walk out of here on June 21st and this job is not done for these students. Then I should have never had this seat. I am kind of shaking. Take the money out of it, it is about kids. Kids… If I was operating a broken system, I would hope someone would walk me out. When are we going to fix the system?
I am trying to be optimistic because I have to be, in terms of my faith in public education. I know where it has gotten me. As a parent I can’t give up hope for my 10 year old that needs eight years in this system to get a chance. He already came 50,000 steps behind through the DCFS system, I can’t give up hope now. I got to keep arguing with my husband that private is not our only option. Public is still fabulous. Public still works. Public education is still something that gives kids education. If I give up now, then I give up on a lot more than I am willing to give up on now. So I got to stay optimistic. Make it equitable and let’s then get every child an opportunity.
Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation