All this week, Chicago Public Schools is making a final push to get state lawmakers to help them close a $1 billion budget hole.
The district is taking busloads of parents to Springfield today (Thursday) for a rally to increase school funding across the state. It’s part of a larger effort around a bill -- known as SB231 -- that would give more money to districts serving poor students, students with special needs, and those still learning English. That bill passed the senate, but hasn’t been called by House Speaker Michael Madigan yet.
Late last night, Madigan released a comprehensive budget package that increases spending on public schools and provides an equity grant. Crain’s Chicago reported that bill would give CPS an additional $400 million.
Lawmakers in Springfield have discussed changing how they pay for public schools for a few years, but this year, there’s added pressure. There is still no state budget and though lawmakers sent money to schools last year, it’s not clear they will do the same this year. Democrats have said they won’t release money to schools until the formula is changed.
More money for CPS would come at a critical time. The district’s unfunded pension liability and debt service payments are growing. This year, more than $1 billion of the district’s nearly $6 billion budget goes into pensions and debt. That eats away at what money can be spent in classrooms. For the last few years, the district has relied on reserves, short-term borrowing and other accounting tricks to balance the budget.
“Remember that term ‘kick the can down the road’?” said George Szkapiak, principal of Kennedy High School on the Southwest Side in Madigan’s district. “Now, that can got up into the curb and you are breaking your toe. It is not going anywhere now.”
Szkapiak spoke to about 60 parents at his school Monday night during a budget town hall. It was one of several such meetings held by principals ahead of the rally in Springfield. The idea was to explain to parents how bad things could be in their children’s classrooms if there’s no additional help from the state.
Many people wanted to know why they were just now hearing that Chicago schools aren’t equitably funded. Szkapiak told them that the problem was many years in the making.
At Agassiz Elementary Monday night, Principal Mira Weber explained what would happen to a group of, say, 25 third-grade students next year.
“Hypothetically, next year with these budget cuts, that same group of students could potentially be in a third, fourth grade class together, multi-age, with approximately 40 students sitting in front of a teacher,” Weber said.
There were four other principals at the Agassiz meeting, which drew about 200 people. Hamilton Principal James Gray walked through how CPS ended up with so much debt and Hawthorne Principal Nate Pietrini listed off several ideas that could help turn things around without cutting classrooms. Some of those solutions included reducing principals and administrators pay by two weeks and increasing the state income tax to 4.5 percent.
At Bateman Elementary on Tuesday Principal Georgia Davos-Vetas kicked off a different town hall meeting with an activity.
“When you walked in you were handed a dollar,” she explained about the green paper dollars volunteers had given the two dozen or so people in attendance. “One is a complete dollar and the other is only 74% of a dollar. Please stand up if you have a full dollar.”
About half the small crowd at the North Side school stood up.
“If you’re currently sitting down, you’ve received only 74 cents for your education as a Chicago Public Schools student,” Davos-Vetas said.
This is the math CPS officials have been repeating over and over for the last several months in their push to get state lawmakers to come through with more money for Chicago schools.
At these town halls, principals were asking parents to email, call, and send letters to their elected officials all this week and at some of the budget town halls, there were even laptops lined up on tables for people to do so on the spot.
At Kennedy, Edith Vargas-Hernandez, a parent representative on the Local School Council, said parents in their area have unique leverage because they’re in Madigan’s district and can put direct pressure on the Speaker to increase funding to CPS.
But the turnout was relatively small at Kennedy, considering similar forums on the Northside have drawn as many as 200 people. With nearly 1600 students, Kennedy is one of the larger Chicago Public High Schools.
Szkapiak and Vargas-Hernandez said the meeting would have drawn more people if it was planned further in advance. Parents and community members were only invited over the weekend. Also, many people work in the evenings.
Police Officer Ken Yekes was there, and said that people are sick of politics in Illinois and feel like they can’t make any difference. He said that he plans to move out of the state in about five years.
Principal Efrain Martinez said parents at Orozco Elementary in Little Village are a bit timid about sending letters to lawmakers. The school is 98 percent Latino and some of the parents are undocumented.
Also, he says that the reality of budget cuts hasn’t hit home for them.
“They are not freaking out like I am freaking out,” he said.
DePriest Principal Minnie Watson said that she and her parents are going to reach out to State Rep. Lashawn Ford (D-8th District).
However, she echoed what Martinez at Orozco said.
“Until the rubber hits the road, they are not in panic mode” she said. “I think if they find out that the state won’t fund fairly, we will be devastated.”
Jamie Sanchez is the principal of North River Elementary in Albany Park and spoke at the Bateman Elementary town hall. He says it’s not that parents are disillusioned, it’s that they’re still in shock.
“The scenario that’s being played out doesn’t seem realistic, it doesn’t seem like something that could really happen,” he said. “I think they’re all hoping that this is some nightmare story that’s going to go away.”
And in the past, it has.
The budget crisis in CPS can feel almost like a broken record. Every year, there’s a giant deficit and every year, officials manage to balance the books.
But Sanchez says he’s been in the system 20 years and has never seen anything quite like this.
“Classrooms of 35 or 40, loss of support programs, loss of extracurricular programs, those are all essential to a school like ours and to lose that, we know that will have consequences that we can’t even see right now,” he said.
The way Sanchez sees it, if kids don’t get a proper education today, it will lead to more problems for society later on. He says state lawmakers should take that kind of long view and craft a budget that gives schools what they really need.