Facing a budget cliff, CPS lets teachers out of school to lobby Springfield

District leaders will join teachers for a lobbying day in the state capital. Critics say the day away from classrooms is inappropriate.

Members of the Chicago Teacher’s Union at a rally in January
Members of the Chicago Teacher’s Union at a rally in January. Teachers are getting a day off school next week to lobby in Springfield for more funding from state lawmakers. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Members of the Chicago Teacher’s Union at a rally in January
Members of the Chicago Teacher’s Union at a rally in January. Teachers are getting a day off school next week to lobby in Springfield for more funding from state lawmakers. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Facing a budget cliff, CPS lets teachers out of school to lobby Springfield

District leaders will join teachers for a lobbying day in the state capital. Critics say the day away from classrooms is inappropriate.

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Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union plan to turn up the heat on state lawmakers Wednesday, with more than 600 staff being given the day away from classrooms to go to Springfield to rally for more revenue.

Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and the school board president will join staff at the state capital as the district stares down a budget deficit of more than $400 million this year. So far, the district has yet to say how it is going to balance the budget, instead insisting that it is counting on the state to provide more funding.

Gov. JB Pritzker has recommended that education statewide get an additional $350 million in the budget for the next fiscal year starting in July, but the boost falls well short of what would be needed to fully fund schools under the state’s own education formula. CPS gets about $1 billion less per year than called for under the funding formula, and under the proposed budget, many school districts across the state will continue to get far less than what they would need to by fully funded.

School district officials say it is important that the district “present a united front” to the governor and lawmakers. The union has been pushing for a joint lobbying day at the state capital for some time. With the ascension of former CTU organizer Brandon Johnson to mayor, union leaders say for the first time in years the school district and the union are on the same page and can make their funding case to the state together.

“It is an important moment,” says CTU Vice President Jackson Potter.

But the plan to release so many teachers from school is coming under fire from critics who called the move inappropriate and have questioned whether it violates ethics policies that prohibit political activity while working for the school district.

But a CPS spokesperson said supporting candidates or referendums is barred, but not lobbying for legislation, which is what will happen on Wednesday.

Potter said such lobbying was common practice in the past, especially before the mayor and the union became so adversarial. In fact, when he and CTU President Stacy Davis Gates worked at the now-shuttered Englewood High School 20 years ago, they were given the day to go to Springfield and push for more revenue.

“So here we are back at it again,” Potter says.

The lobby day comes as principals and local school councils are grappling with how much the district plans to allocate to them next year. Some school communities say they are facing fewer resources and will be forced to layoff staff or do away with programs. (The district has yet to release school level budgets, as they have in the past, so it is impossible to know how widespread the cuts are.)

Potter says some of the most compelling voices at the lobby day will be staff who work at selective enrollment and magnet schools. Local School Council members and parents have been vocal about these specialty schools losing resources, as the district prioritizes spending at the neediest schools. State lawmakers also are considering a bill that would prevent CPS from disproportionately cutting the budgets of selective enrollment and magnet schools.

The budget deficit is coming to a head this year. For the last four years, the district’s structural deficit has been blanketed by $2.8 billion in federal COVID relief money. Chicago Public Schools used most of that money to hire more staff, including teachers, extra support for struggling learners, counselors and tutors.

Martinez said that federal COVID funding has gotten the school district to where it needs to be. But now, as that money runs out, like several school districts CPS is facing a budget cliff.

Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.