Chicago public schools brace for budget cuts as enrollment continues to decline

Pedro Martinez
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez on January 4, 2022. Martinez is arguing he is moving away from a budgeting system that is tied strictly to student enrollment and is transitioning to a “hybrid” system where more positions are provided by the central office. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Pedro Martinez
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez on January 4, 2022. Martinez is arguing he is moving away from a budgeting system that is tied strictly to student enrollment and is transitioning to a “hybrid” system where more positions are provided by the central office. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago public schools brace for budget cuts as enrollment continues to decline

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In Mary Lyon Elementary School’s old yellow and forest green auditorium, on a dreary Wednesday evening, Principal Cliff Gabor delivered the bad news as evenly as he could.

Reading through slides projected on the wall, he said the school will lose six regular teachers, two special education teachers and one enrichment teacher. The next few slides show that, starting in second grade, he projects class sizes to grow, not astronomically, but by a few students each level.

“I know this is a difficult time for everyone,” he told the Local School Council members and parents gathered in person and virtually. “The last three years have been very hard on our school, having the online instruction was very, very challenging for us, reopening the school this year was very challenging for us. And now we have a budget that is less than we’ve had before.”

Sober Local School Council meetings like this have been taking place across the city for the past few weeks as Chicago Public Schools principals prepare to turn in their spending plans for next year to the district office. They are due on April 19.

As principals, parents and LSCs have analyzed their school’s budget, one thing has become clear: Next school year is when ongoing enrollment loss, exacerbated by the pandemic, will catch up to them.

The bucket of money that schools use to pay most teachers and staff is being slashed by $60 million, according to CPS budget documents. And that underestimates the real deficits for schools because it also must pay for the contractually promised 3.5% salary increase.

Also, for years now, some particularly small schools and those experiencing extraordinary enrollment loss have been given equity grants. CPS is continuing that, but doling out $16 million less in those funds.

It is one of the biggest budget cuts in funds for core instruction since CPS started tying school budgets tightly to enrollment about nine years ago. For years, mostly Black schools, especially high schools, have been losing students as families left the city or were attracted by charter schools.

But this year, the reductions are widespread. About 185 schools — more than a third of the 515 noncharter schools — are facing reductions of more than $200,000 in the allocation that is used to pay for core instruction. Elementary schools with majority white and Asian students saw a 6% decrease in these budgets, while majority Black and Latino elementary schools saw a slightly lower 5% decline.

CPS officials say it is flawed to look at money for core instruction in isolation. They point out that these funds only make up about half of total school budgets. The other half includes money for special education, bilingual and preschool teachers.

Parents question why schools are seeing cuts now

But parents across the city are upset when informed that the school has less money for classroom teachers and for enrichment teachers for specials like art or music, as well as other staff.

Betzabel Laredo, a parent whose son attends Shields Middle School, said the school district got $1.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money and she accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez of “stealing” money.

“Where is the money?” she asked at a press conference on Friday in front of the middle school in Brighton Park on the Southwest Side. Shields Middle is slated to lose $212,000 in its core instruction budget and $175,000 for special education, plus it won’t get an equity grant that it previously received.

“How is it possible that, after living through a pandemic, living through traumas and losses, CPS, instead of supporting our children and improving the quality of the education, CPS cuts it?” she said.

Many big city school districts, like New York, are facing a similar conundrum: significantly fewer students, but students with more challenges.

Like Chicago, many of them adopted the budgeting approach called student-based budgeting, which provides schools stipends for each student enrolled. Proponents say budgeting this way gives principals more flexibility and is more equitable. But critics say prioritizing budgets that way makes schools compete for students and thrusts some into a downward spiral where they see a decline in students. Then they can afford fewer programs and then they are less attractive so they continue to get fewer students.

CPS officials say school budgets are down, but more being paid for centrally

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez stresses the financial picture for the city’s school district is not nearly as bad as it seems. He said he is moving away from the budgeting system that is tied strictly to enrollment and is transitioning to a “hybrid” system where more positions are provided by the central office.

This year, the main foundational position being added is at least one interventionist for every school. Interventionists pull students who are behind in reading or math to work one-on-one or in small groups.

“I want parents to hear this: When your child is struggling, I want you to be able to expect that our schools will have the resources to provide interventions from certified teachers and other resources,” he said.

In addition, the school district is centrally paying for coaches to help teachers improve instruction and some high schools are getting athletic directors. And, as is always the case, schools receive additional buckets of money for special education, bilingual and preschool teachers. Special education is seeing a $44 million increase overall and preschool a $9.8 million increase.

Martinez said he is also guaranteeing that every school will have physical education, some form of arts programming and “reasonable” class sizes, but these won’t be centrally funded positions. Martinez said schools should have enough in their core instruction budget to pay for these things.

“And if they don’t, the principals can come to us and we can work with them,” he said. “These budgets are a work in progress.”

Still, Martinez insists the cuts are necessary. After years of not being penalized when enrollment didn’t pan out, some schools had “teachers for students who just weren’t there,” he said.

Martinez said this created inequities with some schools having more money and staff than similarly-sized schools in the same community. He points to two schools just blocks away from each other. One has three more regular teachers than the other, though only 15 more students. “It is not fair,” he said.

But one thing Martinez admits is that it would be better to be able to increase the schools that have less rather than take away from others. Currently, almost no class sizes in CPS are below the 16-to-1 teacher ratio the state recommends for primary grades or the 21-to-1 for fourth through 12th grade.

To get there and sustain it, the school district would need more money from the state, Martinez said. He points out that, even with increased funding from the state in recent years, it is still only 70% of what it should be provided.

Martinez said the school budgets and the extra investments are only possible because the school district is using some of the federal COVID-19 relief funds to support it.

CPS parent says budget is never ‘we’re going to give you more’

But parents are perplexed that, given the windfall of aid from the federal government, CPS has had to cut at all. By the district’s own admission, the vast majority of the money is unspent and must be spent by 2024.

Annette Stenner said Jamieson Elementary School near Lincoln Square on the North Side used COVID-19 relief money given to principals last July to pay for extra teachers and her twin fourth graders were able to be in classes of 20 students this year.

But next year the school is slated to lose $500,000 in core instruction and will be forced to displace three teachers, said Stenner, who serves on the Local School Council. She expects that some class sizes will rise and could go up to 30 students.

Stenner said she and her family love the school for its diversity and the fact that her children can walk to it, waving to the neighbors as they go by. But she worries that the more the school loses, the less attractive it will be to new families moving in.

“The message is out there. It’s always cuts, cuts, right?” she said. “There’s never, “We’re going to give you more.’ Why are people leaving CPS? Exactly for that reason.”

Like Lyon, Jamieson has been hurt by a loss in Latino students. A decade ago, many schools serving primarily Latino students were overcrowded, but changes in immigration, birth rates and the gentrification of Latino neighborhoods have led to significant declines. Since 2016, the number of Latino students has gradually decreased and, in the past two years, the number of Latino students has decreased more than Black students.

At the same time, schools serving mostly Black students continue to see cuts. The schools in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side got slammed, losing not only among the most in core instruction, but also when looking at the entire school budget, including equity grants, special education and preschool.

One afternoon last week, the advocacy group Raise Your Hand was at Johnson Elementary School in North Lawndale handing out fliers about the cuts.

Tyesha Ward, a mother of two Johnson students, looked dismayed as she took in the flier. “I had no idea,” she said. “Wow. This is really sad.”

Ward pointed out that North Lawndale has had a lot of schools closed over the years, which may have saved the district money, but lessened the investment in the community.

What schools are left, she said, should be fully funded.

Ward said the school needs more staff, pointing out that this year two grades were combined in one class, which, experts say, is not a good scenario. And she said there’s not many resources available when it comes to counseling, the arts or after school programs.

“We are still in a pandemic and they need more of everything, not less,” she said.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZEducation and @sskedreporter.