Chicago Public School officials are warning principals that next year their budgets could be slashed by 20 percent. Earlier this year, we spoke with Hamilton Elementary School principal James Gray about mid-year budget cuts he and other administrators had to make.We’re following up with Gray to see what another round of cuts would mean for his school.
Earlier this month, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool met with principals to talk about school budget. Did you attend one of those meeting? What did he say and what was the mood?
The mood was, I guess somber is the word from principals. We’ve obviously had cuts this school year. And we are all well aware of the situation in Springfield, but it seems very, very real now that there could be significant changes to our schools coming.
I can only imagine your reaction to hear the budget would be slashed further, and then hear a number like 20 percent. What does that number actually mean for your school?
For my school, it’s catastrophic. I think for most schools, it is catastrophic. At Hamilton, we spend over 99 percent of our budget towards teachers’ salaries. So there’s no other way to cut things from our budget. For us, 20 percent would be, my guess is five to seven teachers would lose their jobs next year.
Have you started talking to parents about the budget forecast? What have you been hearing from parents?
Well, that’s the worst part. We have school tours every month. For years I’ve been able to look parents in the eye and say ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK. Our school is growing in size, we’ll have money, we’ll have the arts, we’ll have physical education, we’ll have smaller class sizes.’ And for the first time ever, I can’t really look them in the eyes and tell them that, because I don’t know.
Hamilton does a good deal of fundraising. How will the fundraising offset the school’s budget gap?
We do. We’re fortunate. In a school of about 450 students, we fundraise about $240,000 a year. We’ve never used those funds for a teaching position. We’ve used those funds to buy computers, and smart boards, and a new playground. That’s a conversation I would have to have with my parent group board so see what we want to do. The problem with using fundraising dollars for positions is that you then have to do it every single year. Personally, I don’t want to use parent-donated money for teaching positions. I believe that’s the responsibility of federal, state and local governments.
You don’t want to. But would you?
You know, it also comes down to equity. So a school like mine can raise money, but so many schools can’t raise money. So is it fair, or is it a pseudo private school when schools like Hamilton are using funds to pay for teaching positions? Chicago school officials have sounded budget crisis alarms in the past. How is this different? It’s different because there’s not been a state budget. Also if there is no state budget by May 31 when the legislature goes into recess, I’m convinced there will not be a K-12 appropriations bill. So that could mean no money to schools at all unless there’s some miracle in the summer. As a school district, we’re hoping that bill (Senate Bill 231) is signed. We believe that equitably funds schools. It’s still not enough money tied to it, but we think the formula is what Chicago needs.