Chicago Public School officials got an earful Thursday night at two simultaneous public hearings on this year’s difficult schools budget.
A top school official at the North Side hearing said at the start of the meeting he didn’t just want to hear complaints about cuts. He wanted solutions for closing the district’s $643 million gap between revenue and expenses.
“Tell us the things you think we’re spending money on, that you think we ought to cut,” said Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley. “You can’t just say, ‘Give us more.’ Tell us what you think we should cut.”
Speakers were happy to comply.
“Ask the 20 charter schools that are opening after 50 public schools have closed—ask them to do more with less,” said Dan Phelan, who worked as a teacher in the writing center at Schurz High School until he was laid off last month.
More than 3,100 school staff have been let go from the district this summer, due partially to school closings but mostly to budget cuts. The district slashed school budgets in its move to a new per-pupil budgeting system and in its struggle to pay a pension bill that triples this year, to $613 million.
The district has said cuts to schools are $68 million net, but the group Raise Your Hand suggests schools might have lost $162 million.
Many speakers, including state representative Greg Harris, called on the city to use surplus TIF funds for schools.
“It’s not the parents’ job and it’s not the teachers’ job to find the revenue for these schools….That’s your job,” CPS teacher and parent Carolyn Brown told Cawley.
Rod Estvan of Access Living spoke in favor of a property tax hike. “The city’s property tax rate is lower than any other town in Cook County,” said Estvan. “The [school] board needs to take some risks with the mayor and tell him the truth.”
Cawley exchanged barbs with the crowd of about 100 all night.
Going over budget priorities, he mentioned the district’s “safe passage” program, then told the crowd, “You probably don’t have to worry about safe passage up in these neighborhoods—you do on the South and West sides.”
The incredulous audience responded with jeers. “You are so out of touch!” shouted James Morgan, a parent from Trumbull, one of the district’s 50 closing schools.
“The crime out here? You’re full of it!” said a mom who claimed her husband and son had been shot near the Uptown location of the hearing. “How dare you? You don’t know what’s going on in these communities.”
A number of subsequent speakers addressed Cawley as “Mr. Winnetka” because he has continued to live in the elite North Shore suburb thanks to a residency waiver the school board gave him two years ago.
The speakers demanded the district do more to press the mayor for additional revenue for schools. But Cawley, speaking directly to the state lawmaker in the audience during his presentation, emphasized what has become the district’s key talking point—and what it sees as the most likely answer to budget woes—pension reform.
“That’s our one big prayer for the future,” Cawley said.
The school board votes on the $5.58 billion budget on August 28. A final public hearing will be held tonight.
Aaron Atchison contributed reporting.