Updated August 10, 2016
Chicago school officials laid out on Monday their plan to reduce spending in order to balance the budget. Among other things, the district is counting on saving $31 million, at least in part from a new teacher contract, which is still in the midst of being negotiated.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she doesn’t understand why the district would do that.
“Last year we got no steps, no lanes, no raise, no nothing,” she said, referring in part to salary increases based on experience and education. “They’ve already saved money on our backs. Why are they coming back asking for more? We’re saying no to that.”
Schools, both charters and those run by the district, are taking big hits, despite district officials claims that they are protecting classrooms. Enrollment is expected to drop by about 1.5 percent or 5,000-some students, yet schools will get 9 percent less money for core instruction than they were expecting in September 2016.
The budget posted on the district’s website shows that schools are planning to use discretionary money to pay for hundreds more teachers. In the past, this money was mostly used to add onto the school experience and not as much for core instruction or special education.
There are several other areas where schools are getting less money. Since the district moved in 2013 to a system where schools get money per child, the district has been giving extra money to those schools with more expensive veteran teachers. That amount will be reduced this year.
Also, in the past, principals could keep money they budgeted for salaries, but didn’t spend if, for example, it took them a long time to hire or couldn’t find someone to fill a position. Now, the district will take all unspent salary money.
Balancing the budget also depends on unproven cost saving measures. Among them, the district is centralizing supply ordering, changing bus schedules (and shifting start times) and making more central office staff available to help schools perform services typically done by school staff.
Some of these measures have been tried before and often don’t result in the savings predicted. Last year, CPS tried to change bus schedules and shift start times, but after parents complained the district did not go through with the changes.
District officials said they think this year will be different.
All together, Chicago school officials proposed a $6.3 billion spending plan for the 2016-2017 school year. That includes $5.4 billion for operations, $522 million to pay down a growing debt load, and $338 million for new school construction.
The total budget is slightly smaller than last year’s $6.4 billion, but District Chief Forrest Claypool says there will be more new construction announced at a later time this fall.
Claypool insisted that this budget does not rely on gimmicks, as did past budgets. He also noted that the district is not doing any long-term borrowing for operating expenses.
However, the district has $6.9 billion of outstanding long-term debt and plans to spend $563 million this year on debt payments—that’s about $1,450 per student. The district uses money from the state intended for classrooms to pay back bondholders and banks. This year, debt payments will eat up 35 percent of all general state aid. By 2021, debt payments are expected to consume nearly half of all general state aid.
In addition, the district also has a $870 million line of credit in order to maintain cash flow. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, lines of credits have been used. Prior to Emanuel, the district had reserves that it could use while waiting for revenue to come in.
The district is also borrowing for capital projects. This year, the City Council approved a $45 million tax levy for construction and repairs. District officials announced on Monday that they will leverage that $45 million in order to borrow for school construction and repairs. In total, the budget lists $337 million in capital projects, but Claypool says more will be announced in the fall.
The district plans to use $173 million to build a new school in the South Loop, put modular units at two schools and build four annexes, including one in the West Loop. A WBEZ investigation questioned why the district is building new classrooms, sometimes right near schools that have space, when more than half of all schools have ample space for more students.
Even with the full budget released on Monday, it is difficult to get a clear idea of how many fewer teachers the district will have next year compared to last year.
A WBEZ analysis of district data from the previous two years’ budgets shows there were 320 fewer teachers and 410 fewer support staff between 2015-16 and 2014-15.
CPS has yet to post budgeted positions for this school year, though some budget information shows school staff will likely shrink by at least 600 positions.
The information on staffing does not include charter schools or other schools run by private providers through contracts. CPS has about 166 of these privately run, publicly financed schools and, last year, they enrolled about 66,000 of the district 392,000 students.
Often fewer teachers means that class sizes increase. WBEZ found that already-high class sizes in the primary grades have been increasing in Chicago schools. Experts say small class sizes are especially important in primary grades.
On Friday, about 1,000 school staff were laid off but layoffs do not necessarily translate into a reduction in staff because other schools might be opening positions.
Layoffs were widespread and touched many schools expected to get more students and more money.
District officials point out that every year some teachers and staff are laid off as school enrollment and needs shift. They also insist that the number of layoffs this year is less than in recent years, except for last year.
One community on the Far South Side of Chicago is reeling after 25 people were laid off from two local schools on Friday.
“(District chief) Forrest Claypool issued a statement informing the public there would be no cuts to classrooms,” Garza said outside Addams Monday morning. “Why the bait and switch?”
What is happening in the 10th Ward is illustrative of the broader district budget. The cuts to Addams and Gallistel are driven by enrollment declines. But in this case, it’s not because the community has fewer children.
CPS is opening a new elementary school in the neighborhood and officials changed the boundaries, reassigning some current Addams and Gallistel students to the new school. Garza says former district chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the previous alderman promised that teachers from the two schools would be able to follow students to the new school, but so far it’s not clear if that will happen.
“I know of one teacher here and one teacher from Gallistel that got hired there,” Garza said Monday.
Steven Walsh, a former student at Addams Elementary, said his all-time favorite teacher, Rob DiPrima, was among those laid off at the school Friday.
“Growing up, I was very borderline gang member,” Walsh said. “I wasn’t really too sure what to do, who to believe in or who to trust. But it was teachers, like Mr. DiPrima and the other eleven that have been cut, that kept me straight and made me the first person in my family to go to college.”
Walsh choked up talking about the layoffs.
“These teachers have taught myself along with all three of my sisters,” he said. “Some of us growing up here in South Chicago don’t have many role models in our family. Teachers are all that we have.”
Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea are education reporters for WBEZ. You can follow them @WBEZeducation.