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Courtenay School Council Votes 'Yes' on Budget at Contentious Meeting

 Principal Macquline King gives a budget presentation to Local School Council members at Courtenay School.
Principal Macquline King gives a budget presentation to Local School Council members at Courtenay School.
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Dnainfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

UPTOWN — To fight, or not to fight? That was the question Thursday at Courtenay Elementary School with Local School Council members, parents and teachers facing a projected budget from the Chicago Public Schools that they feared would bring layoffs and organizational chaos to the recently consolidated school.

Courtenay's budget for next school year is projected at $1.95 million, a half-million dollar decrease based on CPS' per-pupil funding formula and enrollment projections, according to documents.

LSC members voted 7-4 to pass the budget at a contentious meeting Thursday at the school at 4420 N. Beacon Ave. About 590 students are enrolled there in the aftermath of a merger between Courtenay and Joseph Stockton School.

LSC member Matt Maloney, weighing the costs and benefits of a budget nobody on the LSC looked happy about, asked what would be the best way to communicate that displeasure to school officials.

For Chicago Teacher's Union delegate and Courtenay teacher Claudia Pesenti, the answer was simple: "The time to fight is now."

"Now is the time to be leaders in this room and in this community and say 'no,'" she said, with several teachers in the room nodding in agreement.

Others questioned if it would be worth it, wary of a political fight that might hold more symbolic weight than anything.

The cuts could mean many things if they come to fruition.

Two special-education teachers and three special-education aides would be axed, as would a primary school teacher, a part-time reading specialist, a part-time bilingual specialist, a school clerk and one of the school's two assistant principals.

The following four grade levels would lose one class each: kindergarten, second, sixth and eighth.

Chances are, teachers and LSC members said, that two upper-grade classes would have to be combined, running the risk of putting 35 or more kids in the same class in contrast to the 15 to 20 student-per-class average at the school.

Responding to Pesenti and others who backed rejecting the budget, Principle Macquline King asked: "What about the children?"

She said planning for the best use of funds according to CPS' current calculations was better for kids than drawing things out into a fight with CPS that it wasn't clear Courtenay could prevail in.

Council chairwoman Cassandra Vickas insisted, "I have the rebel gene in me, but I just don't know that we are position to make that decision without harming our kids."

"Do we start a storm here," she asked, "and they still don't give us anything?"

"I don't want to get into all that," said Gene DeRamus, a parent representative on the council. "I don't know if it's going to help."

The Blaine Elementary LSC's rejection of its budget last year and Blaine Principal Troy LaRaviere's public criticism of the mayor and school system this year were characterized by DeRamus as anomalies rather than part of some "wave" making its way through CPS schools.

The proposed Courtenay budget is based on an enrollment projection of 456 students, a number disputed by several LSC members puzzled about how, with about 590 students enrolled to date at the school, Chicago Public Schools came up with the number.

CPS officials weren't immediately reachable for comment Thursday evening after the LSC meeting to explain the funding formula or comment on other budget issues related to Courtenay.

If next year's 20th-day enrollment exceeds CPS projections and more money is given to Courtenay, that would mean a scramble to hire more employees and possibly reorganize classes. After a rough and, some say, hasty transition before this school year, LSC members complained such a scramble would destabilize the school as it's still acclimating to the merger.

LSC members questioned the rationale of the 20th-day snapshot influencing funds and called it "bad business." Based on its 20th-day enrollment number of 507 students, Courtenay was assigned a $2.46 million budget for the current school year.

But there are about 590 students attending the school now, according to the LSC.

King stressed that she and other administrators at the school having been making a strong registration push to attract more students to the school, which could mean money from CPS and thus fewer staff cuts.

"I would rather see us, bad times and all, together for another year," King said.

Stockton was one of 50 schools closed by the Board of Education last year, deemed underutilized with about 450 kids. Despite concerns from community members, the board merged Stockton's student body and staff with Courtenay's in the Stockton building, which was renamed Courtenay. The former Courtenay building in Ravenswood was closed.

Courtenay parent and LSC member Melanie Bienemann wasn't happy with the budget, but she said her discontent stems from the bigger picture of governance in the school system — specifically its unelected School Board.

"The board cannot be all business people and no parents," she said. "The budget is the school, the fight is much bigger than that."

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