Chicagoans sound off on school district budget at public hearings

Chicagoans sound off on school district budget at public hearings

Parents, teachers, and activists gave Chicago Public Schools officials an earful last night over its proposed budget for next school year.

The budget relies on a gamble that state lawmakers in Springfield will come through with almost $500 million in pension help. It also guts services from schools and programs that serve some of the district’s neediest students.

The district’s plan to scale back special education did not sit well with parents who showed up to speak at a public hearing at Schurz High School. District officials are slashing special education, by about $30 million, laying off teachers, leaving 200 vacant positions unfilled, and closing a school, though CPS officials refuse to call it a closure, Catalyst Chicago reports.

“Usually, I feel that these budget and policy initiatives forget about our kids with special needs, but strangely, with this one, it seems like our kids with special needs have been targeted by this budget,” said parent Joshua Radinsky, a parent of a 17 year old who attends Jackie Vaughn Occupational High School, one of the few schools serving students with severe needs.

Vaughn will lose about $1.7 million, which amounts to 23 aides and five certified special education teachers.

“It seems short-sighted to me, unwise, immoral and illegal to try to balance this budget by going after special ed as a way to save money,” he added.

Drew Heiserman, a teacher and parent of a child with special needs, noted that CPS increased the Law Department’s budget by almost as much as it’s cutting from special education.

“It seems to me that CPS is inviting a class action lawsuit,” Heiserman said.

District officials did not comment on the testimony and CPS did not immediately respond to questions about the budget cuts at Vaughn, but district spokeswoman Emily Bittner said after the draft budget went out, “CPS worked with individual schools to ensure they have the appropriate resources to meet students' needs.”

Further cuts to schools on life support

In addition to special education cuts, CPS is cutting half of the funding to a group of 23 high-need schools that were saved from closure in 2013. Then-CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett created the network, called the Office of Strategic School Support Services, or OS4, that existed for a little over a year and provided schools with intensive support.

The OS4 budget will downsize from $34.2 million to $16.1 million. Budget documents said the office will continue to serve the same number of schools, but when asked about the cuts, Bittner said all schools that do not have federal “school improvement” grants will go back to being part of the regular school networks. Principals will get $25,000 for the transition, she added.  

“After assessing OS4’s mixed results and speaking with principals in the OS4 Network, CPS officials determined that a new strategic approach is needed,” Bittner wrote in an email.

Kyle Hillman is a community representative on the local school council of Gale Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park, which asked to be in OS4 last year. He said the school has been put back in Network 2.

“The added resources, the extra professional development, the in-school assistants, the technology, those things are all gone,” Hillman said.

Hillman said in the short time Gale was part of OS4, it moved up a level from the district’s lowest performance rating. The move also comes with a projected decline in enrollment that will mean $362,000 less in the budget. Hillman said the school is being set up to fail.

“When you cut the programs, kids leave, and when the kids leave, you cut my programs because I don’t have enough resources,” he said. “There’s no way for a school that is in this downward cycle to come back out of it, because you can’t return the programs that make kids want to stay in school.”

Revenue solutions

This year’s budget includes a $676 million pension payment that eats up about 12 percent of the district’s operating budget. CPS officials also plan to make a debt payment of $538 million and restructure the rest out into the future.

The dire financial situation was not lost on many of those who spoke at Tuesday night’s hearings. But several people said the answer is not starving schools, but rather raising revenue.

“We support more revenue, we’ve been in Springfield,” said Wendy Katten, “But when and if you get more revenue, it has to go into our neighborhood schools.”

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool is pushing for a fix from Springfield that would change how much the state kick in to the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund. Right now, it gives a small amount, and CPS pays the lion’s share.

The district is limited on how much money it can raise locally through property taxes, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel already gave CPS the go-ahead to raise them for the fourth year in a row. But state law caps how much property taxes are allowed to increase, which limits how much revenue can be raised for classrooms.

Unless you ask voters.

Rod Estvan, education policy analyst at the disability-rights group Access Living, said the district needs to consider asking voters to lift the property tax cap.

“We need to have this referendum to get the attention of the state as a whole that does not believe that the citizens of Chicago support this district,” Estvan said.

The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed budget next Wednesday.