Board Approves Public Schools Budget Despite Questions About Equity

Frank Clark
Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark (right) presides over a board meeting on Jan. 25, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
Frank Clark
Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark (right) presides over a board meeting on Jan. 25, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Board Approves Public Schools Budget Despite Questions About Equity

The Chicago Board of Education approved the school district’s $7.5 billion spending plan Wednesday, despite a flood of criticism over how money for school construction, upgrades, and repair is being doled out.

“This plan is inequitable, and I would even call it reckless,” said Michael Brunson, an officer for the Chicago Teachers Union. Brunson pointed to a WBEZ analysis that showed more of the nearly $1 billion that CPS is planning to spend on building and repair is being directed to the North Side, though it has less students than the South and West sides.

Others pointed to an analysis by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Voorhees Center showing the school district has met a lot of the facility needs in some wards of the city, but not in others. They charged that these decisions are political.

“[Mayor] Rahm Emanuel is using his hand-picked board to push his political agenda,” said Sabrina Marrello, a student who works with Communities United, a community organization.

Others came to the board with long lists of repair needs at their schools. A father said one of the bathrooms in his children’s elementary school is so bad that students must evacuate the classroom when it overflows. A high school student said she fears for her safety when she walks down the hall because the ceiling is crumbling.

And a teacher said one of the biggest obstacles she faces as a teacher is dealing with a classroom where temperatures are either extremely hot or too cold.

Given all the repairs needed, many people in attendance questioned why the school district was planning to build three new schools and four school annexes.

Board members did not reply directly to any of those concerns, though at one point, Board President Frank Clark called conditions at one school “unacceptable,”, as described by a parent. Clark asked the chief operating officer if the school’s problems were on his radar.

At the end of the meeting, Board Vice President Jaime Guzman urged school district leaders to make clearer why some projects were chosen over others.

Other board members touted the fact that the overall budget provides not only upgrades, but also additional staffing for schools. The school system expects to spend about 8 percent more this year than last year.

“I know it will not be enough for some people, but it looks like an awful lot to me,” said board member Mahalia Hines. “I am excited to know what will be done with this money.”

Some other agenda items and issues discussed at the meeting:

  • The board approved changes to the Student Code of Conduct. Those changes remove any requirements that students are suspended or expelled for specific misconduct and change the approach to drug use from punitive to more therapeutic.
  • Parents and activists from the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood pleaded with members of the board to be included in the boundaries of the new South Loop high school. National Teachers Academy, an elementary school, is being converted into a high school. Chicago Public Schools has proposed guaranteeing spots in the new high school to children in the South Loop and Chinatown, but only giving preference to students in Bronzeville. Bronzeville parents note that money from their neighborhood’s special taxing district was used to build National Teachers Academy. They also wondered why CPS officials agreed that Phillips High School, a poor performing high school that serves mostly black, low-income students, is not a viable option for students in the South Loop and Chinatown, but is okay for their children.
  • Some parents, the principal, and the aldermen want to split up Alcott elementary school and high school. The elementary school is located in Lincoln Park, while the high school is three miles west in Lakeview. As part of the Renaissance 2010 initiative, Alcott Elementary was given a high school. The idea was to give parents in the Near North Side community a guaranteed option through high school. But Principal Elias Estrada noted that few elementary school students go to the high school. Also, because of the setup, they have to share a principal and other staff.