Chicago School Board Passes New Budget With $215 Million Hole

State Board of Education
The State Board of Education seal. File Photo
State Board of Education
The State Board of Education seal. File Photo

Chicago School Board Passes New Budget With $215 Million Hole

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday approved a revised $6.4 billion budget that still includes a $215 million hole.

The revised budget is an update on a budget passed in August. It covers costs associated with the new Chicago Teachers Union contract, which union members ratified last month and the board also approved during Wednesday’s meeting.

But the changes to the budget were made before Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that allocated $215 million in state money to the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and Board President Frank Clark vowed to restore the money, even while acknowledging they may come up short.

If “the unthinkable occurs” and the veto stands, Clark said, the board will be prepared to amend its budget to account for the loss of $215 million at its Jan. 25 board meeting. The Illinois Senate voted last week to override the veto but the House did not take action before adjourning for the year. The prospects for a House override are unclear.

The revised budget includes $5.51 billion for operations and $945 million for school repairs and construction. Additionally, the district has to make $563 million in debt payments this year.

Most of the teachers and parents who showed up for Wednesday’s meeting spoke to the board about the budget, but specifically as it relates to students with special needs. CPS changed how it funds special education this year, causing an uproar from parents and advocates who say services are being reduced.

The new system lumps special education money in with the rest of a school’s budget. Principals were asked to make sure the needs of their special education students were met before budgeting their general education classrooms. Parents and principals have said the system — which is playing out in a financially stressed school district — pits students and teachers against each other and has resulted in cuts to classrooms.

At Wednesday’s meeting, CPS Deputy Chief and Director of Special Education Liz Keenan said special education funding levels are the same as last year and insisted the district has met the legal needs of all students with special needs.

Emily Fong sits on the local school council at Suder Montessori and helped write a letter signed by nearly 600 LSC members against the special education funding change.

“The only way to meet the legally mandated needs of our special ed students is to take from our general ed students,” Fong told Board members.

Keenan gave a presentation to the board and answered questions for 45 minutes before parents  gotto speak. Board members and district officials discussed concerns that too many students are being placed in special education, especially black boys.

But at the end of the meeting, after more than a dozen parents and teachers testified, board member Michael Garanzini noted that the level of frustration from people on the ground is concerning.

“I think the last speaker was absolutely right,” he said referring to a social worker who spoke about being assigned to work with 1,100 students across two schools. “There really are not enough people in the schools to deal with the kind of issues that are common today. These are kids with PTSD. It’s not just a local problem, it’s probably a national problem. But it is certainly our problem.”

Also Wednesday, CPS’ inspector general in an unusual move publicly accused the board of trying to thwart his investigation of CPS’ general counsel by asserting attorney-client privilege.

Inspector General Nicholas Schuler began investigating General Counsel Ronald Marmer for possible ethics violations after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the board had hired a law firm where Claypool and Marmer once worked.

“The board’s assertion of the privilege is preventing my office from accessing relevant documents and interviewing attorneys that likely have information relevant to the investigation,” Schuler said. “Unless the OIG is granted the access it needs, a critical undermining of the public trust will result.”

The board suggested, and Schuler agreed, to pursue the discussion in a closed session. But Schuler said he wanted to make clear he thought the board’s action violated both the Illinois School Code and is also “contrary to past board practice.”

Finally, the Board made three personnel changes during their closed session. Denise Little, who has served as special advisor to the CEO, was appointed chief operating officer; Emily Bittner, the current chief of communications, was appointed chief officer of strategic planning and communications; and Kenneth Fox was appointed chief health officer.

Kate N. Grossman contributed to this story.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation.