Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students head back to their classrooms on Tuesday under unusual circumstances: For the first time in many years, the school district is relatively stable, and its finances improved. It even has new school buildings on the drawing board.
“Chicago Public Schools and the city [are] really experiencing some positive things,” Schools CEO Janice Jackson pronounced at a recent back-to-school breakfast with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is seeking re-election in February.
Unlike her predecessors, Jackson is a CPS educator and graduate — a local face some hope will bring an end to the high turnover rate in the CEO’s office. Jackson has appeared in several events recently to highlight national recognition for strong academic growth in the elementary schools and the district’s rising graduation rate.
And Emanuel, who is in re-election mode, just announced nearly $1 billion in new construction and renovation projects — including a new open enrollment high school on the West Side, additions to several overcrowded schools and new science labs.
Principals across the district are basking in a newfound calm, though many remain skeptical about just how long it all might last.
Calming the chaos
The district’s stability this year is an outgrowth of two developments in Springfield: an end to the state’s budget stalemate and historic changes made in 2017 to the way Illinois funds schools.
The new funding formula, designed to target new state dollars to underfunded school districts, generated hundreds of millions in extra cash for Chicago Public Schools through increased state aid and pension contributions as well as a local property tax increase.
This allows for new investments and created space for school district leaders to plan for the year ahead — a luxury the school district could ill afford in recent years as it faced constant budget crises and cuts.
With a healthier financial outlook, one of Jackson’s first moves as CEO was releasing school-based budgets to principals early, in April. For the last several years, principals had to wait until well into the summer to get their budgets.
This has allowed principals to hire teachers earlier — making it easier to compete with suburban school districts — and gave them more time to focus on things like curriculum development and teacher training.
Jackson also promised schools they wouldn’t lose money once school began, even if their enrollment was lower than expected. That past practice wreaked havoc in under-enrolled schools.
CPS funds its schools based on how many kids enroll. In the past, if fewer kids than expected showed up at the start, school budgets were cut in the second month of school. This led to teacher and staff layoffs and chaotic reshuffling in schools. Some years, CPS decided at the last minute not to cut under-enrolled schools, offering relief but not easing the anxiety that preceded it. None of that is happening this year.
“When they announced that, I was at a principal’s meeting, [and] we all cheered,” said Mather High School Principal Peter Auffant. “It allows us to really thoughtfully plan for the future of the school, the very near future of the school, knowing exactly how much you are going to start with and not worrying necessarily about that potential drop in enrollment.”
But there is a hitch. School budgets for next year are expected to be based on enrollment this October. If it drops this fall, schools likely will contend with reduced budgets next fall.
Auffant’s school sits on the Northwest Side of Chicago, it’s one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the city.
Last year, Mather’s enrollment dropped, forcing him to let teachers go over the summer. This year’s a different story. About 450 freshmen showed up for registration — nearly 250 more than last year. His total enrollment is about 1,500.
At Burroughs Elementary School on the city’s Southwest Side, Principal Richard Morris also took advantage of his early budget to prep for back to school. But he isn’t convinced these changes alter CPS’ financial future.
“It’s nice to see the budget ahead of time because at least we know what we are dealing with it … and how we are going to deal with it as the school year starts, but what’s going to happen next year with the budgets? God only knows,” Morris said.
He says the real problem is that the budgets are just too small. The per-pupil amount CPS gives each school is not big enough to hire the support staff and experienced, more expensive teachers he needs.
“The salaries go up, and you wonder … how am I going to afford this?” Morris said. “I might have a classroom that I need to open up but I might not have any money for that. I have to make sure I hire someone right out of college.”
Morris’ skepticism speaks to a larger reality for Chicago Public Schools.
The new state money is making a difference across the school district, but a lot more is needed to fix CPS’ deep financial problems.
And while the state says CPS is underfunded, there is no guarantee Springfield will keep funneling extra dollars to Chicago and other needy school districts every year. To ensure all school districts in Illinois can provide a quality education, the state says $7 billion in new money needs to be funneled to the districts over time.
It’s also election year, and while the mayor is touting new school construction projects, it’s unclear how the school district will pay for them.
For now, schools like Mather, that are expecting an enrollment boost this year, will enjoy bigger budgets next year. But for the schools with fewer students this time around, budget cuts will likely come next year. For them, the good news is only temporary.