CPS releases budget, but is the money really there?

CPS releases budget, but is the money really there?
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
CPS releases budget, but is the money really there?
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

CPS releases budget, but is the money really there?

Chicago Public Schools is balancing a $6.4 billion budget for next school year on money it might not get.

The budget, presented to the public at the last possible minute allowed by law, includes a $178 million capital budget to do only the most needed building repairs, $538.6 in debt payments, and a $5.7 billion operating budget. Added together, it’s about $400 million less than last year’s total budget.

CPS is on the hook to pay $676 million — or 12 percent of its operating budget — into the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool is counting on Springfield to kick in $480 million to help make that pension payment.

But that money hasn’t come through yet, and Claypool admitted Monday it’s a move that, “essentially bought time through the first semester.” If it doesn’t happen, there will be more cost cuts come January.

Rod Estvan, education policy analyst with the disability rights group Access Living, annually reviews CPS’s budget and says banking on Springfield is a risky move.

“I understand not wanting to make an additional $480 million in cuts,” Estvan said. “But it’s a risky proposition and if they make those cuts mid-year it’ll be worse than doing it now. It’s kind of like laying a trump card to the (Illinois) General Assembly and the governor.”

A bill that passed the Illinois Senate last week includes some pension help for CPS, but it’s not clear if it will be a full $480 million.

As it stands now, the city schools’ budget includes $42.3 million in cuts to special education, $1 million cut from top executive salaries, and $15.8 million in cuts to charter schools. More than 400 of the district’s 600-plus schools are seeing reductions in their individual school budgets.

There will be an additional 1,500 layoffs, including 225 tenured teachers. CPS officials estimate there are 1,450-some vacant teaching positions. They plan to hold a job fair this Friday, August 14.

News about various cost-saving measures have been trickling out over the last several weeks. One such change was adjusting the bell times at dozens of district schools to save $9 million. Today, district officials said they would be restoring the bell times of 34 schools, leaving 48 schools with new start and end times. The change will still save $5 million, the news release said.

CPS is also relying on $80 million in additional property tax revenue and $87.2 million in money collected through special taxing districts, known as TIF districts. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has the power to declare a surplus on those funds. Another $250 million in savings will come after the district restructures its debt, pushing payments out into the future, a move known as “scoop and toss.”

District officials are budgeting to pick up 7 percent of the employee pension contribution, but haven’t set aside any money for salary increases.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said if CPS took away the pension pick-up it would amount to a 7 percent pay cut for teachers, something she considers “strike-worthy.”

By law, CPS must hold public hearings on the budget. They will be held simultaneously next Tuesday night, August 18th, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Schurz High School, Malcolm X College, and Olive-Harvey College. Registration to speak starts at 5:00 p.m. The Board of Education will vote on the proposed budget on Wednesday, August 26.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at bvevea@wbez.org and follow her @WBEZeducation.