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New contracts approved, but school district budget concerns loom

Chicago public school teachers and the district’s new CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett officially have contracts for the coming years.

Byrd-Bennett will make $250,000 per year running the city’s public schools—the same as what her predecessor Jean-Claude Brizard made annually during his short tenure.

Brizard stepped down two weeks ago in the wake of speculation about his performance and how much influence he had in shaping policy. Brizard gets one year’s salary as part of his severance.

The new appointment came at the same time the Board of Education approved the new Chicago Teachers Union contract. In the first year, that contract will cost the district $103 million, officials said, but the average annual cost is pegged at $74 million. The higher cost in year one is partially due to the 3 percent raise, as opposed to a 2 percent raise in years two and three.

The new costs come even as the district’s operating budget remains in limbo.

School officials delayed a vote on the amended budget that would make room for the changes. That’s because there was not enough public notice for the hearings held last week; those hearings were meant to get feedback from the public on the changes to the budget approved in August. 

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said there would again be public hearings on Nov. 5 and the amended budget would be up for a vote at the end of next month.

Board members peppered Cawley with questions and concerns about what they called “one-time fixes” used in this year’s budgeting process. Some of those one-time measures include restructuring some of the district’s debt and draining the reserve fund.

Board member Andrea Zopp said even the amended budget includes a number of things that are yet to be done. She asked for regular updates.

“I would just ask that we be kept in the loop on a fairly regular basis,” Zopp said. “I kind of like to see the train coming before it’s going to hit me.”

District officials are already projecting a $1 billion shortfall next school year due to ballooning pension costs when the current legislative relief expires.

Cawley said district officials are already looking ahead to next year.

“Work is underway now to look for pension reform, as I mentioned, that’s got to be our number one item, to think of ways we can generate additional revenues, and then also to think about ways to restructure our district to change our cost structure,” said Cawley.

That restructuring could include multiple controversial school closures and consolidations in the coming months.

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