Chicago School Board Passes $6.3 Billion Budget | WBEZ
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Chicago School Board Passes $6.3 Billion Budget

The Chicago Board of Education approved a $6.3 billion dollar spending plan today that relies, in part, on revenue that may never come through.

The $6.3 billion includes $5.4 billion for the operating budget, $337 million for capital improvements and $563 million debt payment.

The CPS board also approved three tax levy increases to bring in 14 percent more property tax revenue. District officials say more of that money will go toward paying the district’s teacher pension fund payment.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool called the passage of the budget “a huge step toward securing long-term financial stability.”

But Wednesday’s board meeting was emotionally charged with parents, teachers and advocates voicing anger and frustration at budget cuts.

One mother said: “Your budget normalizes having no librarian, insufficient art and music, fewer courses and larger class size. It’s hard to imagine how you sleep at night knowing the magnitude of the cuts that have already happened and continue to happen.”

Xian Barrett, one of hundreds of teachers laid off, pleaded with board members to help him find a job.

“All we want to do is teach,” he said.

Board president Frank Clark said he feels like the budget is in a much better place this year than last year.

“The 2017 budget is indeed a balanced budget,” he said prior to the board vote. “It is not without risk. But relative to the 2016 budget those risks have been substantially eliminated.”

Last year’s budget relied on $480 million from the state. When that money never materialized, the district wound up making unprecedented midyear cuts.

In order to balance the budget this year, district officials are budgeting for an additional $215 million from the state which will only come if the general assembly passes a comprehensive pension reform package.

The business-backed Civic Federation said it did not support the district’s budget primarily because it does not lay out an alternate plan in case the state doesn’t act.

Yet Claypool says he is more confident this year that the money from the state will come through. He called the $215 million from the state an “obligation.”

“Unlike last year when it was a hope and a prayer, this year we have the absolute public commitments from the four legislative leaders and the governor… This is radically different than last year.”

But Governor Bruce Rauner said Wednesday that money wasn’t a certainty.

“Could I sit here today and say, ‘Absolutely, for sure we’re gonna get that pensions reform agreement worked out in the next few months?’ I’m gonna try my darndest because I ran trying to change our pensions but I, you know, who knows?” Rauner said.

The school board is also expecting to cut labor costs by $31 million, the bulk of which would come from a new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.

“Our hope now is to reach a final agreement with the CTU so that once school begins, our children can remain in the classroom where they belong,” Claypool added.

The two sides have been in negotiations for nearly two years, but almost no progress has been made since a third-party mediator issued his recommendations in April. A newsletter put out by the union Wednesday mentions the possibility of a strike in October if no agreement is reached by then.

The last offer made public by the district would’ve given teachers a raise over the life of the contract, but would’ve asked them to pay more toward health care premiums and eliminated the long-standing practice of picking up most of the employee pension contribution.

The new budget does include a new property tax levy that will generate $250 million dedicated to shoring up the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. But the new budget also reduces the number of staff in the district by about 1000. Of those, 700 are teachers. Some of that reduction is due to enrollment declines, but not all.

One area where staff are being cut is special education. The district insists all students with special needs will get required services, but the total amount of money for special education is being reduced.  

Most schools are dealing with smaller budgets this year even though district officials argue the new budget protects classrooms. Data show a drop in librarians and art teachers, among others.

But as schools are seeing reductions, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and city officials are planning to ramp up new school construction and repairs of existing buildings. The budget approved Wednesday includes includes $337.5 million in capital spending.

Officials have said they will release a supplemental capital budget in the fall, but have kept quiet about what else might be included. WBEZ obtained a list of projects being considered.

The school board gave the district permission to borrow up to $945 million to finance those building projects. City officials say bond holders would be paid back directly using the new $45 million capital improvement tax levy passed by City Council last fall.

Every year, by May 1, the district is required to put out a list of all the capital projects it plans to do. But this year, the list was released in August after city leaders held private meetings with certain school communities promising new annexes and schools.

Much of the new construction under Emanuel is furthering segregation by race and class in the city’s schools, a recent WBEZ investigation found.

Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea are reporters for WBEZ. Follow them at @wbezeducation.

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